May We Be Forgiven – life over the edge

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I read the much-feted This Book Will Save Your Life some years ago now. It made quite an impression on me – its main character, Richard Novak, stayed with me, and I liked A.M. Homes’ style – she has a mastery of physiological insight and a talent for depicting the real, the raw, in a way that is truly satisfying to the reader. Harry, the main character in May We Be Forgiven, is in many ways reminiscent of Richard Novak – he has drifted through life lecturing on a dated subject, bumping along in a loveless husk of a marriage with the incredibly driven Claire. He harbours no deep desires, no design for life, until one day his monstrous brother’s downtrodden wife startles him with a kiss in in the kitchen, and what follows shatters life as everyone around them knows it.

I love it when I can’t guess where a book will go and that was definitely the case here. A.M. Homes likes to take those emotive moments in life that can be the catalyst for real change and run with them. What happens when a man with a famously dangerous temper, around whom people have always walked on eggshells, is forced to contemplate betrayal? And what happens when a man who has hitherto lived a sterile life with no responsibility is thrust into the middle of a traumatised, dysfunctional family and is tasked with leading them back to sanity?

Homes likes to explore the lives of people with material success who have lost contact with what really matters in life. There is a loneliness at the heart of her novels. Her characters learn to reconnect – life forces them to, and this awakening is fascinating and painful. Homes waits for her characters in the formative, difficult moments of their life. She prods and pokes them in the places where they are most vulnerable and most unsure of how to proceed. We wonder what we would do in Harry or Richard’s situation and we invest in their struggle.

However, there is theme in both of the Homes books I’ve read so far: her protagonists are swimming in money. Therefore, even at the sharp end of their lives, they are buffeted by affluence. Sometimes I think it’s easy to be heartwarming when your character has an endless supply of money with which to change people’s lives for the better when he realises what an empty life he’s been living. What would the story look like for someone who had messed things up with friends and family, but who didn’t have the resources to dedicate the whole of their remaining days to making things right? To a certain extent, Homes’ books are wealth porn, fantasies of a life without limits, without the ugliness of survival decisions. Is it cheating, what Homes is doing, I sometimes wonder? Is she feeding me, as adverts do, by selling me a dream where the only limits are in my mind? In part, yes, I think so. But then this is fiction – does it have to live relentlessly in the drudgery of everyday life? Or is it fine for Homes to strip away the mundane and leave us with an amazing story of personal growth in a life unfettered by logistics? She is not interested, seemingly, in digging into reality as much as she is in digging into the mind in its crisis moments, and watching where it goes and where it resurfaces on the other side of that madness.

Dark, funny and unputdownable, May We Be Forgiven is a triumph from the pen of A.M. Homes – a riveting study of life after being tipped over the edge.

 

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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared – a rich rollercoaster ride

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is one of those books that makes you stand back and admire the author, and envy the unbelievable richness of the mind that can produce a story as intricate and fantastical as this.

It’s not easy to sit in a café, broke and anxious, and spill onto the page a complete world filled with quidditch and dementors and horcruxes – not just an exploration or a  snapshot of a world that already exists, but something new, with new rules, new possibilities. It takes imagination and a vision – I admire that, and Jonas Jonasson comes from the same school as J.K. Rowling in that respect.

Allan Karlsson, the centegenarian who climbs out of a nursing home window and sets off a chaotic chain of events, has had a richer life than most. He has dined with various presidents, spent years in a brutal gulag, accidentally given Stalin the secret of the atom bomb, changed the fate of Indonesia with Albert Einstein’s chronically stupid brother, and all manner of other things. And that is before he gets himself caught up with a suitcase filled with stolen millions, a four ton elephant called Sonya and an international man-hunt.

Yep, Jonas Jonasson has built quite a world for his amiable hero Allan, and yet he hasn’t scrimped on his other characters, who are numerous and entertaining. They accompany Allan on his unlikely rollercoaster ride through history and it is perfect, in a book so outrageous, that the characters are all so realistically drawn. People stumble through life in this book, as they do in real life, even when the consequences are immense. And it’s this mundanity at the heart of the book, and the pottering, humdrum character of Allan himself, that make Jonasson’s rollercoaster ride so delicious. This is what makes the tale incredible rather than farcical. A quirky, brilliant read from an extremely fertile mind.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist – bitter tea

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is charmingly written, and instantly riveting. A young Pakistani meets an American in a Lahore teashop and begins to tell him the story of his life. By titling his book in the way he has, and then giving a story about a clever young man who buys into the American dream, attends Princeton, falls in love with an American girl and becomes a high-flyer at a New York valuation firm, Mohsin Hamid invites his readers to examine their own unconscious prejudice about fundamentalism as fed by the fear-mongering Western media. One of the most interesting things about this book is the perspective it gives on the life of a suspicious-looking brown, and worst of all, sometimes bearded, person living in New York in an atmosphere of post-9/11 panic. This is the America of the apple pie and stars and stripes. A retro idyll: our hero wonders whether the America of that popular imagination ever existed, and whether, if it was resurrected, it would have any kind of place for a person like him. It’s an interesting thought, and it’s interesting to see a writer explore the perspective of someone who has some sympathy for the 9/11 attacks – not for the action itself, with its fatal consequences, but for the feeling of anger against America: the aggressor, the patronising big brother, the ruthless bully. It was interesting to watch Changez, our hero, with his love for the land of opportunity, its beautiful women and its personal freedoms, think again about the fragility of his life in the corporate machine.

The book is not centred around politics, whatever the assumption might be. It’s a personal story – one man on a path to success, hard won success at that, who is forced to re-evaluate his identity. Hamid writes convincingly about the two very different worlds his character straddles and Changez himself is full of depth. I read the book in a couple of sittings, eager to find out how it ends. I was transported – to dusty Lahore, to gleaming New York – and I was gripped by Changez’s life, its highs and its lows.

A fresh and refreshing perspective on most that popular of subjects: 9/11. Mohsin Hamid’s story is both beautiful and deeply sad.

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The Truth – a slightly unfinished jigsaw

Keith Mabbut in an intrepid journalist gone tame. From breaking a water poisoning story and making a wealth of enemies in the process to writing an oil company’s official history without any mention of the environmental disasters it has caused, it’s fair to say that in middle age the fire in Keith’s belly is sputtering somewhat. He is estranged from his wife, he’s always letting his grown-up children down and he has never had the success he hoped for in his career. But then, as he settles down to finally write his big novel, Mabbut gets an unlikely commission. A biography of the elusive Hamish Melville, his environmental hero. It’s a dream come true but Mabbut’s investigative nose is suddenly twitching. Is there something fishy about his commissioners?

Michael Palin’s The Truth is a story of second chances. His protagonist Mabbut is prickly, proud, and frustrating at times. A little bit of a pedant, he’s hard to warm to at first but he ultimately wins you over. The best parts of this book are those where he’s travelling India in search of Melville. Of course, Palin knows how to write a travelogue. Travelling also frees Mabbut from his dull daily life and some of the most irritating aspects of his personality.

In terms of review, I wasn’t bowled over by the book – it is, as it says on the back, ‘a very good story, very well told’ but I could never really love Mabbut enough to get any more involved in it than that. There were also a few small pieces in the jigsaw that seemed to have been left unresolved: is Stella secretly struggling with a serious illness? Is Shiraj really what he appears to be?

So although I enjoyed reading The Truth, it does fall between three excellent books in my reading calendar, and it is therefore getting graded on a curve. (Sorry Michael. Pole to Pole is still one of my favourite things of all-time.) A very readable book but not necessarily one to snatch from a bookshop at the earliest possible opportunity.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – fuku and family

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a hard book to pin down but it reminded me a bit of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, the way it pinpointed its characters in place and time. Lots of foreign words go unexplained in the course of this book – readers must learn by osmosis: you are dropped into the world of the de León family and you have to feel your way around. Nothing is contrived– Díaz is not interested in reader exposition and I like that.

The author’s offering is the story of a family cursed over generations by the Dominican terror: fukú. This curse can take many forms, as we come to see. As far as the family de León  goes, there is Oscar, firstly and most predominately. Oscar is a lovesick ghetto nerd – a kind of tragedy version of Manny from Modern Family if he grew up in a different, more difficult way. Oscar loves women but they don’t love him back in the way that he wants when he outgrows his chubby childhood cuteness. His sister Lola, meanwhile, is fierce and wild – she battles with their mother Beli in her diminished, cancer-ravaged form. But when Beli’s young life is revealed, we learn that she was once wild and beautiful herself – a world away from the bitter crone she has become.

Díaz always wants to make sure we know why things are the way they are in this family. With every new story, with every step back in time, a new influence the their lives is revealed. Everything is recounted via our trusty narrator Yunior, Lola’s old boyfriend, who becomes entangled in Oscar’s sad and lonely life and can’t quite seem to shake himself free. There is a conspiratorial tone to the book – as readers, we are peeking in through the windows of the de León family home, watching events unfold.

The book explores the Dominican culture of hyper-masculinity, to which Oscar, with his melodramatic soppy tendencies, can never truly belong, and which will crush Beli and Lola’s spirits in its own way. It explores issues of race – the yearning to be lighter, straighter-haired, more European-featured (the words prieta, morena and black-black are everywhere). It also details the hissing jealousies that come with being thought of as too pretty, or too confident, by your peers. But, as with other things in this book, race and gender identity aren’t topics as such, they’re more of a backdrop to the story. Díaz offers a snapshot of Dominican life through the lens of one troubled family. It’s a book to be swept away in, not one to analyse, po-faced, in a dusty room. So in that spirit, I will step back from the book and just say that Díaz is a very strong writer with a powerful sense of place. His book will have you wanting to keep mining the seams of history he has cracked open, and he will have you learning something new without you even noticing.

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This Book Will Save Your Life – or at least stay with you

I read this book ages ago when I was working all summer at a concert hall in Brighton. It was my job to take tickets and for the hours when I wasn’t doing that (which was all the long, stretching hours of concerts, evangelical conferences and whatever else) it was my job to sit there and read. It was a hot summer and I was about to go off to uni and I read this book and I just loved it. My mum bought it because it was one of the first Richard and Judy book club titles but she never read it.

I liked the donuts on the cover. I remembered that I liked the feel of the writing too. The thing is, I read so many books that lots of them inevitably slip out of my mind afterwards. But I remembered Richard Novak.  He’s a man who wakes up in middle age to realise he’s been living life in a vacuum. He barely knows his son, his ex-wife is long gone. He hasn’t spoken to his parents for years. He has a nutritionist, a housekeeper but apart from that he is alone. When he finds himself suddenly in pain and is rushed to the hospital, they ask him who he’d like to call and he realises there’s no one on earth he wants to speak to. No one he still has that connection with. This is a book about him putting his life back together from nothing. Finally, Richard starts to interact, to say yes to human contact. The man in the donut shop. The woman crying in the produce aisle of the supermarket. His next door neighbour. The 911 operator. He starts spending his money, spending his time, following the flow of life, doing whatever comes next. He reconnects. He opens Pandora’s box.

There’s just something so feel-good about this book! I never re-read – there are so many new things out there but this book drew me back in and it was just as good the second time. It’s basically a story about a man having a mid-life crisis but there’s something so real at the heart of it. It treads the same ground as a Richard Curtis film, plugs you into an idea of humanity you can believe in. It won’t change your life, not in any kind of profound way, but there’s a warmth in it that will stay with you. From life in a vacuum to horses and helicopters and have-a-go-heroism, A.M. Holmes takes you on a winding and inexplicably wonderful adventure back to life.

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The Wolf Road – made for the big screen

The Wolf Road is the story of Elka and her adoptive daddy Trapper – at least Trapper’s who he is to her. But the posters slapped up all over towns and trading posts across the cold, wild north call him Kreager Hallet – bloodthirsty, child-killing monster of the woods.

Seven-year-old Elka is taken in by Kreager when a thunderhead (a giant tornado-esque storm prevalent in this post-apocalyptic landscape) rips her from her hard-bitten Nana’s home (her parents having left her there to chase the gold rush some years earlier). Hallet teaches her his way of life – animal-trapping, hunting, fishing and surviving in the bleak, harsh, snowy wilderness. He’s not a lovey-dovey type, but he’s her daddy and Elka is shocked when at seventeen she goes into nearby Dalston on an errand and sees the posters. It’s there that she runs into ice-queen Magistrate Jennifer Lyon – Lyon’s got it in for Kreager Hallet; she lost the most precious thing in her life at his hands, and she’s not going to stop till she catches him…

I don’t want to say much more about the plot of this book because suspense and secrets are what it’s built on. The reader roots for Elka, this little wild woodland creature who spent her childhood in a killer’s lair, who called this monster daddy. It’s hard not to admire her grit as she ploughs through the post-apocalyptic wasteland, surviving against the odds, running towards a childhood fantasy (will she find her gold-hunting parents in the far reaches of the north after all this time?) and desperate to escape the horrors of her time with Hallet, which she’s kept padlocked in the dark corners of her brain until now.

I quite liked the dialect the book was written in – it didn’t feel awkward or forced to me like I imagine it easily could do. But the thing I liked most was the way Lewis builds this post-apocalyptic world of Elka’s. It’s not big on the details – we have to build the picture ourselves as we go along. There was a catastrophe called The Damn Stupid that’s left a world of fake forests, dead land and poison lakes. In some ways it’s like we’ve gone back to the old wild west where survivalist skills and trade in basic life necessities (furs, food etc.) are how a person gets by.

Lewis isn’t a JK Rowling or a Terry Pratchett, building whole new worlds down to the very last detail. She sets a scene with just the lightest descriptive touches and lets your imagination do the rest. A little bird told me that there’s been some interest in the film rights to the book and, having read it, that doesn’t surprise me one bit. The book feels like a film. It’s like you can hear the blood pounding in your ears and the smothering silence of the snow around you. Like you can smell the pine. It’s easy to imagine the voiceover in Elka’s distinctive dialect, or a well-cast Kreager Hallet’s terrifying tattooed face as he stalks the snowy woods for his prey.

On the whole I avoid films of books I enjoy because they leave so much richness and detail out, but there’s a sparseness about The Wolf Road and a cinematic heart to it that meant it played almost like a film real in my head as I read it. It’s a thrilling read on the page, pacey and engaging … but I can’t help but think how truly magnificent it could be on the big screen. I hope someone picks it up!

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