Monday, 4 April 2016


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ROOM [By Emma Donoghue]. Went into this having read no reviews or seen the film and really not knowing a thing about it. My fave reviewer, Claire Diston had recommended it strongly.

As everyone except me now knows, it is about a woman locked in a room somewhere in North America with her five year old kid. The narrator’s voice is that of the five year old. Everything is seen through his eyes. His life is boring, stunted, deprived obviously and his narration is taken up with the endless repetition of mundane daily tasks: eating, reading and re-reading the same five books, television, games and exercises. All in a room eleven ft square. So it pretty quickly becomes a boring, repetitive book; there are only so many childhood thoughts to interest the reader.
He is precocious. His mum teaches him to read and write way beyond his age-level and of course this would be a likely outcome of an intense one-on-one relationship between an intelligent young woman and a bright kid where there are no other distractions. In fact knowing no other life the kid, Jack, is full of five-year old curiosity. A bit too much for me and the voice became irritating ‘Wonderland’ about a third of the way through particularly set my teeth on edge and the whole thing is too long.

But there are some brilliant set-pieces in it. Old Nick’s little speech on how lucky they are is a terrific piece of writing; parking Ma is very, very clever although the reasons for the parking don’t ring true at all; the escape is good, some reviewers have a problem with it but she [ED] could have done this in twenty different ways so what does it matter. Jack is oblivious to the heroic efforts that his mother makes to protect and entertain him but these are obvious to the reader; one still thinks the world that one lives in is normal and it will always represent home to you.

Also, I loved the way that no-one ever says, ‘I love you’. Most excellent.

I hadn’t realised that Emma Donoghue specialises in writing novels using real lives and real stories as source material. She researches, then writes her version. In interviews, she says that it wasn’t the confinement story that interested her it was the later adjustment to the outside world she wanted to engage with and in fact the novel is very clearly divided in two, the capture and imprisonment then the release and the adjustment.
Just a bit too long. I can see what she is doing, building, building, building showing not telling but it goes on for too long.  

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU [By Celeste Ng]. The New York Times Best Seller. Amazon America’s No1 Best Book 2014. Another utterly humourless American writer.

This is one of those books that sucks you into its world and makes you reconsider your own. Kind of. A fairly quick read that's highly absorbing, I can understand why so many people think that it's brilliant, but I only found it good, not great. I can see how there is something for everyone here: the ambitious mum, the suffocating disappointed father for whom one’s best is never enough; the cold shoulder at every turn; the teasing at school. I guess it has struck a chord with a lot of Americans, although it’s all a bit OTT for me; seriously, would such intelligent parents [a Harvard lecturer; a doctor] behave as stupidly as these two? If I had had parents like Lydia’s, I would have bludgeoned them to death long before I reached my sixteenth birthday. Some excellent writing however, here for example while they still think Lydia might be alive:

. . . a slit gapes in the lining of the bag. A small tear; small enough to slip by the busy policemen, intended to escape an even sharper eye: a mother’s. Marilyn works her hand inside and pulls out an open package of Marlboros. And, beneath that, she finds something else: an open box of condoms. She drops both, as if she has found a snake . . . 

And here:

'. . . but I didn’t want her to be just like anyone else’. The rims of her eyes ignite. ‘I wanted her to be exceptional’.

It wasn’t really like that for me. I had plenty of childhood traumas but over-ambitious parents weren’t on the list.

I wanted to say similar things about Kiri in my first novel, Riccarton Junction although I made her half-Japanese, not half-Chinese. Except, from the outset I decided to make her teenage life a success, with kind and loving parents whereas Celeste Ng has gone the other way and made Lydia’s life one of torment and failure, with impossible, problem parents. I wanted Kiri to benefit from being half-Japanese, in her beauty but also her mystical mum whereas there seem to be no benefit at all to being half-Chinese in Everything I Never Told You. Perhaps it would have all been less bleak if she had set it contemporaneously with i-phones and Facebook, instead of the 1970’s.

ANCILLARY JUSTICE [By Ann Leckie]. Winner of the Hugo Award. Winner of the Nebula Award. Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award . . . the only novel according to the blurb to have won all of science fiction’s most prestigious awards.

It’s a space opera, but it’s not for me.

It is about Breq, a soldier, a spaceship, a zombie and his search for a weapon that will allow him to take out the Lord of the Radch in some far future when the galaxy is ruled by a tyrant who thinks nothing of killing whole planets and populations and then storing the dead bodies for future use as what? Storm Troopers, wreaking ever more destruction.

Its decades since I read any science fiction. Dune, probably which I remember devouring as a teenager but which I re-read about ten years ago but had to throw in the towel because . . .  because I couldn’t be bothered with it. Couldn’t be bothered remembering who was who and whether this minor character was worth the effort or was she a major character and I needed to remember that she was the sister of the uncle of the general that was killed five hundred years earlier on planet Zog . . . And this is the same. Every character’s name starts with the letter S: Seivarden; Skaaiat; Shinnan; Strigan. I just don’t have the temperament any more.

When I was younger, I was a genius. I had an amazing IQ: 156 or something, applied to join Mensa: what is the next number in sequence? 0 3 4 5 6 10 12 15? And all that stuff so I loved Dune and its cast of a thousand characters, the sandworms and evil interplanetary villains but I’m an adult now. I thought I would give Ancillary Justice a try but in the end . . . and I didn’t skim it . . . I read every word, it defeated me.

And it is utterly humourless. Three humourless American books in a row. Enough.

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