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Category Archive for 'England'

In The Only Story, British author Julian Barnes returns to examine, once again, some of his most encompassing themes. As in his Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending, he writes a “character novel,” in which a main character examines his experiences with love, loss, memory, and time to try to ascertain a grander truth about life, something not affected by immediate emotions, the sentimental memories of the good times, or the tendency to see what one wants to see in the past. Here Barnes examines the intensity of a first love and its effects on main character Paul Roberts’s entire life, emphasizing that no matter what the outcome of such a love is – happy, sad, long-lasting, or brief – that its effects on a life are, in fact, ineradicable. This engrossing and expansive study of two very different characters, creates empathy for Paul as he deals with love’s complexities at the same time that the reader recognizes that Paul Roberts is not alone.

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Falling somewhere between a novel and a story collection, The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor continues a narrative which began with his earlier novel, Reservoir 13. Though both books revolve around the disappearance of Becky Shaw, here the author takes the reader inside the characters, all of whom are featured in their own chapters. Here they reveal their inner thoughts and memories, their fears, vulnerabilities, quirks, and even suggestions of past violence. Individualized in this way, these chapters create a sense of hidden danger and violence, raising new questions about what really happened to Becky Shaw, and forcing the reader to consider whether someone in the community has hidden knowledge of what happened to her. People who have read and liked the prize-winning Reservoir 13 will have an advantage in reading this book because of their familiarity with the community and many of its characters, but others will find this book so effectively written from a character and suspense standpoint that they may like it even better than that first novel (especially if they keep a character list). Dramatic, insightful, and effective, The Reservoir Tapes makes one wonder if another entry in a Reservoir series might be on its way.

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In a novel about the French intellectual elite who live confidently and proudly at the very margins of society in the early twentieth century, author Rupert Thomson explores the lives and loves of two women who live on their own terms at the very margin of social acceptance. Avant-garde in their personal beliefs throughout their lives, they become close friends when they first meet in 1909 when Lucie Schwob is fourteen and Suzanne Malherbe is seventeen. Suzanne and Lucie are actually aided in the development of their relationship when Lucie’s father and her institutionalized mother divorce, and he marries Suzanne’s widowed mother. Now stepsisters, the two can to be together all the time, without causing gossip. Traveling frequently between Nantes, Paris, and the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, for summer vacations, they explore their new lives “as sisters.” As they grow up, they become part of the avant-garde artists and philosophers in Paris, eventually being forced to leave for the Channel Islands as World War II breaks out. Following their story from 1920 to 1970, Rupert Thomson creates a fascinating story of two very unusual women.

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It is not an overstatement to say that in his Last Stories, published posthumously, Irish author William Trevor has presented a collection of stories so powerful and so memorable that many readers will consider this to be his life’s masterpiece. Here he illustrates the observations he has made during his lifetime regarding how people face and adapt to three of life’s biggest challenges – love, memories of the past, and death, with all the emotional involvements that those subjects embrace. Love, as we see it here, can be pure passion, but it can also include friendship, simple acquaintance, admiration from afar, and hope for the future. Our memories, Trevor shows, are often affected by our conscience, sense of guilt, regret, secrets, dreams, and the amazing ability of humans to “edit” their memories to make them more palatable. Death, of course, can be sudden, long-awaited, accidental, or intentional. Frequently, these themes overlap. Despite the complex themes, Trevor’s stories remain firmly grounded in earthy narratives connecting very real characters, most of whom create their own worlds to help them deal with personal issues, and the stories here appear to have been arranged in order from least to most complex and from short to long. This extraordinary collection feels like a gift from William Trevor to his readers, ranking with the best of the best. If you like carefully wrought stories, do not miss these.

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“If our mother had ever thought to phone us from wherever she was, we would no doubt have lied cautiously and said everything was fine, not mentioning the strangers who happened to be crowding into the house at that moment. They did not in any way resemble a normal family, not even a beached Swiss Family Robinson. The house felt more like a night zoo, with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow moving opera singer…”

As Nathaniel Williams, age fourteen, makes these comments to the reader, he is dealing with the absence of both of his parents as World War II and the aftermath of the blitz are paramount in England. His father has purportedly been promoted to take over the Asian office of a business. His mother, who plans to join him, stays behind with the children in London for the summer, sharing stories with Nathaniel and his sixteen-year-old sister Rachel about her early life growing up in rural Suffolk. When the school year is about to start again in September, their mother disappears, supposedly for Singapore to meet their father. The children remain behind with an assortment of characters like those mentioned in the opening quotation. Who these people really are and what they have done during the war become the main questions for the rest of the novel, as Ondaatje explores who we are, how we interpret our pasts, and what we can do about our futures.

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