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Category Archive for 'Psychological study'

NOTE: The second of the “Quirke series” by Benjamin Black (the pen name for renowned author John Banville), The Silver Swan (2008) follows Christine Falls (2007). At present (January, 2017) there are seven Quirke novels in this series, which is set in the 1950s. Quirke’s complex personal story unfolds very slowly in the background during these seven novels, some of it especially important to understanding him, though it is referenced, but not usually explained, in subsequent novels. I am therefore reposting these early reviews because they introduce key information in Quirke’s life, important to know in later novels, including Even the Dead, published on Jan. 3, 2017 and to be reviewed here this week.

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NOTE: This novel, published in 2007, is the first of a series of mystery novels written by award-winning author John Banville, under the pen name of Benjamin Black, and set in the 1950s. Because seven of the novels in the current series all feature the same main character, Quirke, whose life gradually opens to the reader during the series, I am re-posting this early review from 2007 and, to come, a review of The Silver Swan from 2008, which help to explain the complex background of Quirke as we see him in his new novel, Even the Dead, just released and soon to be reviewed here.

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The cold and snow swirling across Lake Superior in the opening paragraph set the scene, the tone, and the atmosphere of the conclusion of this love story, which is presented in the opening chapter and told in flashbacks from that moment on. The unnamed narrator, a student researcher writing a book about luxury trains, also writes fiction in his spare time. Having come to Chicago from Switzerland to work on an advanced degree, he soon meets Agnes, a twenty-five-year-old graduate student in physics, working on her own dissertation. Like him, she uses the resources of the Chicago Public Library, and from the first time that she sits opposite him at the library, the narrator is drawn to her. Though Agnes is a plain woman, her eyes “had something unusual about them, an expressiveness [the narrator] hasn’t often seen.” Before long, they take cigarette breaks together and, later, go out for coffee, though Agnes admits that she is “not a very sociable person.” Still, it is April, spring-time – a time of promise and growth, and within a couple of weeks, the narrator and the innocent Agnes are spending nights together. As the novel develops, change and decay pervade the action, but it is the related question of how we perceive reality and the role of fiction as part of that reality which make the conclusion such a shock. It is one thing for the observant reader to become so involved in the story that s/he is horrified by the ending, and quite another for an author to write fiction with the idea of encouraging a particular outcome in real life.

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Powerful, dramatic, and psychologically unsettling, author Han Kang’s prizewinning novel delves into the inner lives, the secret goals, the hidden fears, and the mysterious dreams, of three members of one Korean family. These family members – a young woman who has decided to become a vegetarian; her successful, married sister; and her sister’s artist husband – each become the intense focus of their own section of the novel, as they live their lives, make their mistakes (some of them drastic), and live with the results. The separate sections allow the reader to share each person’s thoughts and motivations from the inside. At the same time, the characters appear and reappear in each other’s sections, providing new information so that the reader sees each person interacting with others – a clever technique which makes it possible for the reader to observe the characters from the outside and to see how the actions of one affect the actions of all. Han Kang asks and illustrates many basic questions about who we are as humans, who we are in relation to the outside world, and how much control we have over our lives. Where the novel excels is in its ability to create psychologically rich characters who do not fit molds, a novel which is unsettling and sometimes overwhelming.

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Author Eugen Ruge grew up in East Berlin during the time of the Berlin Wall and lived there till the age of thirty-four, leaving the East for the West a year before the Wall fell, and perhaps it is this background which enables him to create a main character like Peter Handke. Handke is disconnected from those around him, alienated, his profound loss of motivation preventing him from making changes in his own world. Like the author, Handke is also a man from Berlin, one who has just lost his girlfriend and his sense of direction, and he has decided to start over in a new country. Not as young as he seems, he is a former professor of chemical engineering with a well-paid, permanent position, one he has recently resigned in order to become a writer. A novel of absurdity which sometimes borders on the bizarre, Cabo de Gata (“Cape of the Cat”) begins with Peter’s travels from Basel to Barcelona and then on to Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain. Peter Handke is not a “hero” or even an anti-hero. He is too neutral and uncommunicative to attract the long-term interest of the reader, and his journey is a solitary one, with no antagonist, other than life itself, to fight him. He raises questions but does not come to many conclusions, and those he does draw are often offbeat and darkly comic. The novel ends without a clear resolution, adding to the feeling that this novel defies all the “rules” and presents itself on its own terms. Readers who can be satisfied with letting the novel unfold in its own way will enjoy this unusual and often humorous creation which offers more than mere laughs.

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