These Are The Names

These Are The NamesIt never ceases to amaze me that every so often you come across a cultural product (in this case, a writer) you’ve never heard of, but that’s (who’s) immensely popular and bestselling in another country.

Tommy Wieringa is an award-winning Dutch writer. He’s published many books to critical and award claim, and the book most recently released in Australia, These Are The Names, won Holland’s Libris prize. That’s the Dutch equivalent of the Booker.

That prize hints at the style of book These Are The Names is: challenging; containing characters and storylines that aren’t entirely likeable but that illuminate some key human and cultural lessons. So, an arduous read, but one that’s worthily enlightening.

These Are The Names contains a motley assemblage of characters. Pontus Beg is an ageing policeman chasing the skirts of his cleaning lady and taking stock of his life—past and present. He has not, as the first line of the book tells us, become the wise, calm old man he’d envisaged. One of his feet is perpetually cold. Life and routine and alienation from family have worn him down. His family history is something of a mystery.

Beg lives in a border town on the steppe. It’s unclear which country this steppe occurs in—perhaps deliberately, or perhaps because I’m obtuse and couldn’t figure it out. Regardless, it’s a bleak, harsh town reflected in the landscape.

Concurrent to Beg’s story is that of a group of refugees attempting to cross the border to a better life. Thrown together through tense circumstance, they find themselves on a relentless, wrenching march across the steppe. They are starving, distrustful of each other, unsure if they’re going to survive.

Their and Beg’s worlds collide when the group eventually makes it to the town, at which point Beg’s task is to discover their names, their stories, and to solve a related murder. Which is a difficult task, for they have ‘become people without a history, living only in an immediate present’. They’re also ‘dead people’, one tells Beg. ‘You have no idea how often we fell asleep in the certainty that there would be no tomorrow…You can’t get to us.’

These Are The Names tackles some big themes: religion, family origins, identity, asylum, hope, and despair. It’s an unflinching look at flawed humans, the choices they make, the repercussions of those choices, and whether redemption can be had.

Each character is complex and troubled in their own ways, and the journey immensely difficult, which Wieringa wrings out through exquisite turns of phrase. For example:

A thirst that drowned out all thought, thirst that tempted you with cool ponds, that conjured up the sound of dripping faucets. They wept for rain. Every word they spoke tasted of rusty iron. The child, a boy, pinched the skin on his forearm and pulled. The puckered skin rose up and remained in place, like a crease in a sheet of paper.

And:

The dreams with which each of them had left home had gradually wilted and died off. Their dreams differed in size and weight, and remained alive in some longer than others, but in the end they had almost all disappeared. The sun had pulverised them; the rain had washed them away.

While I can’t say I enjoyed These Are The Names per say, nor can I say it’s the point. As with any Booker-style book, it’s designed to test and incrementally shift our perceptions of the world. Wieringa’s book has haunted me, which is a sign its themes resonate off the page. Most particularly, it’s made me wonder what I would do in desperate circumstances, whether as a refugee or as someone ageing and feeling increasingly obsolete and out of place.

Wieringa will be in the country shortly, but crazy work and life curveballs will prevent me from hearing him speak. My goal is now to track down some podcasts and interviews to learn more about him and his oeuvre.

For although I didn’t know about him prior to Scribe giving me the opportunity to review this book, now that I do, I’ll be seeking Wieringa’s work out.

Booker Prize 2012 Shortlist announced

The shortlist for the 2012 Man Booker Prize has been announced.

The shortlisted titles are:

  • The Garden of Evening Mists (Tan Twan Eng, Myrmidon Books)
  • Swimming Home (Deborah Levy, And Other Stories)
  • Bring up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel, Fourth Estate)
  • The Lighthouse (Alison Moore, Salt Publishing)
  • Umbrella (Will Self, Bloomsbury)
  • Narcopolis (Jeet Thayil, Faber).

The winner of this year’s prize will be announced at a dinner in London on Tuesday 16 October.

Good luck to the shortlisted authors.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’

No one told me this book would be so…well, awesome.

Ok, so I lie. Many bloggers and critics have written about this book since it was first published in 2005. It has its haters and its not-likers, of course. But for the main part it’s been well-received, and when I found out it was being made into a movie starring cute-as-a-button Carey Mulligan and the gorgeous Keira Knightley I just had to get on the wagon.

I guess “shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize” emblazoned across the cover was probably some indication that the book would be, if not enjoyable, then thought-provoking. I had previously categorised Kazuo Ishiguro as one of those Japanese authors that I really should be reading but I don’t read much of, like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. I think I already had in mind that Kazuo’s works would be a little bit “kuh-razy”, which I have to be in a certain mood for. But while Mr Ishiguro is crazy – it’s in all the best ways, I promise.

Never Let Me Go begins with ‘Kathy’ at 32 years old, reminiscing about her idyllic childhood at Hailsham, where the children are encased in their happy, painless bubble; provided with everything to keep them physically healthy and encouraged in artistic  and athletic pursuits. Hailsham seems like your ordinary Toffee-English boarding school for the privileged few, but there’s something a little ‘different’ about it that the reader can’t quite put their finger on, in the beginning. When we’re finally let in on Hailsham’s little ‘secret’, the book becomes a bit of a philosophical mind-bender.

What makes this story so interesting, so absolutely heartbreaking, is its refusal to wallow in sentimental bull dust. The subject matter is scarily relevant today – the idea of ‘playing God’ is something that civilisation questions with every technological and scientific advance. But it is often the human element that divides us on this issue. Where do we draw the line? Is one human life worth a half-dozen others? Ishiguro handles this issue in an originally subtle way. In fact, its subtlety might be lost on people expecting high, impassioned speeches and a rebellion against the cause. Although it has elements of alternative history, dystopia and science fiction, Never Let Me Go bypasses the expectations of the genres to become its own brand of quality contemporary literary fiction.

Was it the beautiful, exacting prose, or the haunting feeling it left me with? Like origami, this book deserves to be admired: a modest creature on the bookshelf, but its fascinating secrets, and thoughts of its construction, lie within the perfect folds. Clearly, I loved it: it’s right up there with The Book Thief for me.

Do read it, and let me know how it affected YOU.

Wolf Hall: Surprisingly Readable

Villains are so much more engaging when they have a heart, dontchathink?

I have been ashamed for too long – Wolf Hall has had pride of place on my bookshelf for months now, and I’ve barely poked it. I only wish I had got to it sooner, because once I picked it up I could not put it down. And it seems like the perfect time to talk about it, what with the 2010 Booker shortlist having just been announced (I can’t believe Mitchell wasn’t picked)!

So then: Wolf Hall. The 2009 Booker prize winner is something of an art piece, detailing a vast account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise as the grand vizier to Henry VIII. So often the courts of Henry VIII are the subject of lusty romance fiction novels, with victimised mistresses as bawdy fruit ripe for the picking, and a particular redheaded brute who enjoys hunting, feasting, and aforesaid victimised mistresses. Don’t get me wrong, I love that bodice-ripping stuff. But it can get a little worn. Wolf Hall is of a refreshingly different breed, and Mantel is the architect of a sceptical and calculated court, seen through the beady eyes of one Thomas Cromwell.

The novel’s magic lies in the humanisation of Cromwell – his marriage is a business contract, but he comes to love his wife Liz, his boy Gregory and his two little girls. When Liz, Grace and Anne perish of the sweating sickness we don’t see the outward show of stoic, but instead are witness to Cromwell’s grieving thoughts as he makes a show of conducting his daily business. Mantel treats Cromwell’s life unequally – she is particularly attentive to his early years where his father uses him for bloodsport, and then is attentive to his later years under the majestic Cardinal Wolsey, with very little in between. Yet, this deliberate spotlighting results in a fascinating portrait of a guy whose humble beginnings helps him understand the fickleness of power when everyone around him is a glutton to it.
Cromwell’s wry disdain of mademoiselle Anne Boleyn is particularly evident – I especially love the first introduction of her:

“The lady appeared at court at the Christmas of 1521, dancing in a yellow dress. Daughter of the diplomat, Thomas Boleyn, she has been brought up since childhood in the Burgundian court at Mechelen and Brussels, and more recently in Paris, moving in Queen Claude’s train between the pretty chateax of the Loire. Now she speaks her tongue with a slight, unplaceable accent, strewing her sentences with French words when she pretends she can’t think of the English. At Shrovetide, she dances in a court masque. The ladies are costumed as Virtues, and she takes the part of Perseverence. She dances gracefully but briskly, with an amused expression on her face, a hard, impersonal touch-me-not smile. Soon she has a little trail of petty gentlemen following her; and one not so petty gentleman. The rumour spreads that she is going to marry Harry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s heir.”
-[Page 67, Wolf Hall.]

The rest of the book is just as impeccably written. And if you expect to see the rise AND fall of Thomas Cromwell, you will be disappointed – the curtain closes when Thomas is at the height of his power in 1535, five years before his downfall and his execution at Henry VIII’s word in 1540. To my mind it is the perfect send-off. You can’t help but feel a little uneasy, like a gypsy reader unsure of her own clairvoyance. Thomas Cromwell, in the closing of Wolf Hall appears as if he will be Henry’s beloved forever. But that’s the draw of power, isn’t it? It makes you omnipotent and thrillingly vulnerable in the same intoxicating breath.

For the Love of the Chunkster

Dear Readers:

I have a confession to make. It is a confession that is so monstrous, so remarkably horrid, that your view of me will forever be marred.

*Takes deep breath*

I have never read The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

[I know what you’re thinking: “and here she is, this imposter, purporting to be a FANTASY blogger, no less!”]

Before you pass too hasty a judgment, let it be known that I have watched the Peter Jackson movies and loved them to bits, over and over again. And I read The Hobbit, so really, I feel like I know Bilbo Baggins PRETTY well. It’s not the same, I know. But it’s a start.

On three separate attempts I have made it, at best, about halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring. My excuse for not finishing it? It was TOO DARNED LONG. Too much valuable reading time had to be spent on the series, whereas I could read 15 or so smaller books in the same time bracket! But in my heart of hearts, I know this is a lie.
In truth, if you look at which books I love and have enjoyed the most, refusing to read a book because it is “too long” is laughable. For my very reading existence is almost completely dependent on my love for a particular type of book: for the love of the CHUNKSTER!

I define a chunkster as a book that has at least 500-600 pages, average size font.

Why do I love them? Well, there is something deliciously satisfying about reading a book that gives me the proper amount of time to immerse myself in the story, wallow about in its glorious filth. To know the characters through an intense description of a frock worn, to know a world as it is built, brick by brick around me. And, of course, I feel pretty awesome when I finish something that requires so much time and effort to get through.

Some of my fave chunksters:

Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett is a magnificent choice in the chunkster realm. To understand the passion and architectural skill of building a Gothic cathedral, while all these people’s lives are carrying on around it, is just mesmerising to me. After reading that book, I felt like I had built the church myself – ’tis a great feeling of accomplishment;
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is 1000 pages or so of mind-numbing faerie Victoriana brilliance;
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, sends me into a spin just thinking about it;
And I have just read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and been absolutely blown away by its intricate content, its romantic Sci Fi, its literary awesomeness. No wonder it won the Booker Prize.

I am also super pleased to report that the fashion of the chunkster doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere fast. The obsession with mass fantasy reads like Harry Potter and Twilight meant that each book in the series had to be larger than the last, to satisfy the starving fans. And you only have to look at 2009’s Booker shortlist to see that chunksters are still considered worthy literary reads (I’m currently digging my way through Wolf Hall with mounting enthusiasm). So, to come full circle – I don’t know why I can’t get through Lord of the Rings. I’m going to try again, mid-year, and let you know the results. As long as another chunkster doesn’t steal my attention… (here’s hoping!)

How do you feel about chunksters? To me, you’re in one of two camps: you adore the chunkster and all that it stands for, or you fear them to the depths of your soul and avoid them like the plague.

Which is it for you? Team Love? Or Team Fear?