MOTHERS AND SONS [By Colm Toibin]. God, this is a boring book. When did he write it? When he was sixteen? I finished it but I struggled with the last story . . . the one set in Spain. . . where everyone stares at one another’s crotches. He certainly isn’t going to let you forget about his own sexual orientation . . . even in a collection about mothers and sons. Reviews on Amazon are pretty good but several people talk about a flat tone [code for boring?] the Guardian says he captures moments of longing and loss. Where? Peoples Parties [Joni Mitchell] captures more longing and loss in its two minutes fifteen seconds than this does in its entire 309 pages.
It’s all contrived. Okay, okay all novels are contrived. The Book of Strange New Things is contrived Tinker Tailor is contrived, Earthsea is contrived but they are rooted in a believable world set on solid foundations. The author has done his or her research and you know that such characters could really exist and that they would behave exactly like this; with integrity and coherence.
I never believed in anyone in this collection.
MY BRILLIANT FRIEND [By Elena Ferrante]. I really liked this. If your usual taste is Jack Reacher, you will find it painfully slow but I love character-led stuff and of course it shows, never tells and you have to use your intelligence to understand the nuances of what we are reading. It’s a kind of Neapolitan My Struggle [Knausgaard] taking the reader through the very early years of two girls in a poor neighbourhood; Elena is still playing with dolls when we first meet her . . . and then on through the decades until she and her brilliant friend Lila, reach sixteen years of age. It has a great sense of place; the cultural aspects of Southern Italy, Camorra, honour, vendettas are also fascinating. The time of the late 50s and early sixties is also one of change both social and economic and you can sense these events happening behind the scenes.
I see that some reviewers think that there are too many characters, a trap that Knausgaard didn’t fall into and I agree that whilst she is giving us the whole picture and you have to pay attention to detail if you are writing about how nuanced our lives can be, it can get a bit turgid and unrewarding at times . I felt the stuff about the shoes didn’t play well but was tremendously interested in the relationship with Nino. Why do girls do that? Why do they disregard the skinny, rather shabby but interesting one in favour of the tall good-looking one? What are they going to talk about for the rest of their lives?
Of course the title My Brilliant Friend is slightly misleading: it’s really about Elena, not Lila.
There are three more books but I think I have read enough of Elena for this lifetime.
GAP CREEK [By Robert Morgan]. Dare I say it again? Yet another totally humourless American novel. Re-published in 2012 this was a number one [American] best seller when it came out in 2000 as well as being an Oprah Book of the Month. Very nicely written by Appalachian author Morgan it is unsurprisingly set in rural Appalachia at the end of the nineteenth century, in fact one of the key scenes takes place on New Years Day 1900. He is strong and good on description, Here for example:
On the fourth day of the cold spell, when the sky was clear as a big bubble the sun played its light on, there was a knock on the door.
One example among many.
It’s about the pioneer life, the struggles against the elements, the land, bad luck, the weather, con-men who will kick you when you are down and a Christian community who will pray passionately for you but offer no practical help when you need it most. I found it formulaic; conflict; conflict; conflict. They have a flood, they have a fire, you can almost hear Robert Morgan thinking, ‘what else can I throw at them?’ and none of it is sufficiently mediated. It soon becomes a one-note drama of simmering resentment. As I said at the beginning, very nicely written and the central character, Julie is a wonderful creation but really what am I reading this for? To suffer their hardships along side of them? To wonder if I would have her fortitude? To learn what it was like to try to make a living on a smallholding in North Carolina in the late nineteenth century?
Not honestly sure it was worth the effort.