Friday, February 26, 2010

The Gathering - Anne Enright

What is the truth? Where does it lead you? Can truth that has been buried for years turn into a lie or a figment of imagination? Does it stay as it is, ignored as it has been for years? Or does it turn into this large unwieldy thing inside you, bloating, disfiguring, till you have to let it out?

Veronica Hagerty loved her brother Liam. Events in their lives not withstanding, she loved him perhaps more than any of her other siblings. When her brother dies, grief, guilt, midlife crisis, a dwindling marriage - one, some or all of these reasons force her to review her entire life in minute detail. In someway, hers and Liam's lives are always entwined and interconnected, whether they can stand each other or not. Veronica knows her brother's secret. She knows what happened in their grandmother's house the winter of 1968. All these years she has kept it to herself, as long as Liam was alive, it was his secret, his past, his responsibility. Drunkard or not, Liam was alive, blood flowed in his veins and so did the responsibility of the truth.

When Liam dies, the truth pops out of him like a bubble and it is the unbridgeable gap between her and peace. Suddenly it becomes her responsibility. The truth. To tell or not to tell, to forget or to not forget. Does she even really remember it?

So Veronica, unconsciously or by design, sets about trying to get to the crux of this truth. In the end, what threatens to undo her? Is it the way she grew up? Is it her grandmother's house? Her own tottering marriage? Does she feel purposeless and unloved? Is it midlife crisis or simply the guilt? The guilt that seems to tell her over and over again that she knew, she knew and she didn't do anything about it. And now Liam is dead.

Whatever it is, even as Veronica traces the history and experiences of her family back from the days of her grandmother's youth, it is all for Liam. Real or imagined, she struggles to make sense of the life she has led, they have all led, for Liam's sake. She loved Liam; even while she hated him, she loved him. She cannot run away now, no matter how much she might try to let herself go, the truth ought to be faced.

The Gathering is like a jigsaw puzzle. It begins all over the place, that is to say, the narrator Veronica Hegarty does. How it is finally perceived is up to the reader I suppose. To those who can withstand the direct and sometimes terrible way that Veronica Hagerty looks at everything around her, this book might remain with them long after they have put it down. It doesn't wear comfortably, no fairytale this, but through Veronica, Anne Enright has pushed the truth of things out bit by bit till you can no longer ignore it. It is there to be considered and you have to consider it. The Gathering is a wrenching tale about how neither Veronica nor Liam are able to forget what happened to him in her grandmother's house the winter of 1968 and how the rest of their lives were shaped around and over it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Chocolat - Joanne Harris

The winter wind brings them to Lansquenet-sous-Tannes one cold February . Vianne Rocher, her little daughter Anouk and Anouk's imaginary rabbit friend Pantoufle.

Welcome to the wonderful, magical world of Chocolat, it will leave you reaching out, trying to grasp the magic that laces the book long after you have turned the last page. From the very first pages, conflicts are portrayed - internal conflicts, conflicts with outsiders, conflicts with the dead, conflicts with the sick, with fate, destiny...over beliefs. Lansquenet, a tiny blip on the French map is a village of little change, little magic, old traditions and prejudices, a little drab, a little colourless. Into this village of dreary routines, Vianne Rocher infuses scarlet, crimson and gold in the form of La Celeste Praline, her little chocolaterie.

Little by little, the villagers either take to Vianne or join the opposing group led by the priest, Francis Reynaud.

Father Reynaud, unsatisfied with the petty daily concerns of his little flock: Father Reynaud, who sets a path for himself but finds temptation right under his nostrils during the period of Lent. Is it just the chocolates or Vianne Rocher herself? We don't know. Fancis Reynaud carries dark secrets in his bosom and in his mad and blind devotion to what he calls "conventions of the church" shows a remarkable lack of empathy. Suddenly, ousting Vianne Rocher and her chocolates becomes his life's purpose.

Finally, there is Vianne herself. Vianne has spent her whole life running from The Black Man - priest, law, man, woman, conventions, customs, prejudices: anything that threatens to disrupt her life. Vianne has unresolved issues herself, she is not as self assured as she seems to be, she has grown up a certain way and has lived her life a certain way but what she ultimately wants is to stop running, to be accepted.

Chocolat is not just a book about the struggle between Vianne Rocher and Francis Reynaud or chocolate and the Church; the book brings out a million prejudices and notions, forces you into acceptance or rebellion. Joanne Harris has created a portrait of people whose inner most thoughts are retold in magical prose so that you feel as if you were a part of them. I will not call Chocolat a feel-good book. What Chocolat does, is tell you a story of how to let things be, let things go. Like it or hate it, you cannot ignore Chocolat once you have taken it up.

Go into La Celeste Praline, have a cup of hot chocolate and tell Vianne a little about yourself, you might even enjoy it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare

[I have not read the analysis of the play or seen a theatrical or movie reproduction as I wanted to form my own inferences the first time]

Love and lives torn asunder by circumstance: this is not new. I have heard many people say that Romeo and Juliet were basically luckless. It may have been so, but I wonder, just how much of human mistakes and human prejudices can you blame on luck?

On one hand you have the bitter feud between the Montagues and the Capulets that has already twice threatened the peace of Verona. On the other hand, shouldn't the Prince, as the sovereign of Verona, have tried to govern the Montagues and the Capulets towards a less violent path? Contempt breeds contempt, this is evident in the way even the servants of the respective houses regard each other and spoil for a fight. What was the reason for the Prince's initial leniency? Was it indulgence or negligence? If Romeo and Juliet had indeed been fated to love, maybe timely interference in the feud could have prevented much?

There are the Montagues and the Capulets themselves: at the drop of a stone, words are crossed, swords are drawn and lives are lost. Thus Mercutio (Kinsman of the prince and friend of Romeo) lost his and Tybalt (Juliet's cousin) lost his. Hot blooded Mercutio and Tybalt smarting under his uncle Capulet's criticism goad each other to death and Romeo to murder. What about Benvolio, Romeo's cousin and friend, who seems to be passive at best whenever he appears? Shakespeare seems to have made out Benvolio as a troubled man, one who loves peace yet lacks the impetus to intervene confrontations and preserve that peace. Is self-preservation Benvolio's only interest?

Was Mercutio's and Tybalt's fight the fountainhead of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet's woes or did they begin when he wanted to be 'a glove upon her hand so that he might touch her cheek?' Romeo, foolish, hot blooded, impulsive, impetuous Romeo, how well and how much did he love Rosaline if one look at Juliet was enough change him? Romeo by turn produces mad agony and a dead sense of calm. In his lady's presence, Romeo seems unable to control his excesses, be it the first time they meet, at the proclamation of their love or towards the end, just before he dies. Romeo as well as Juliet emphasize through out the play that to each, the other means much more than life itself. Romeo is seen many times as being entirely ruled by his emotions. When he goes to the apothecary to procure poison after hearing of Juliet's supposed death, the words and the punctuations used there belie that sense of dead calm that comes out of sheer weariness of spirit and detachment with his "world wearied flesh." Indeed, he shows no consistency of temper or consistency of loyalty to his first love but shows consistency to death, in that, he does what he always said he would do, nothing will be well, cannot live, does not live if Juliet is taken from him. What was it about Juliet that caught his heart that way? Love at first sight might be overrated but was that what Romeo felt? Was love at first sight, excesses of emotions for beauty more common in Elizabethan England? Was Romeo shallow in his treatment of Rosaline? Who is to say? Shakespeare does not tell us Romeo's and Rosaline's story; in fact it may be inferred that the only reason for Rosaline being mentioned at all is to show the unevenness of disposition that causes Romeo ultimate harm. Juliet on the other hand, present a foil, she is quick with her words, quick with her wits and till the time of the actual wedding is not sure of Romeo's love. Her mind wavers with Tybalt's death (Romeo being the murderer) but her loyalty to her love overrides everything else and she is dispassionate enough to chide herself for showing even a glimmer of disloyalty to Romeo. But here too, one vein runs common: violence of emotion. From the time that they meet, both are blind to everything else.

Every character in the play seems to have played a part in writing the destiny of the two. The prince with his punishment, the families with their prejudices: they love their children, as long as the children do their bidding, Mercutio and Tybalt with their misplaced rivalry, Benvolio with his passiveness, Paris simply because he wants to marry Juliet and Friar Lawrence, the third most important character, with his self preservation instincts when he hastens out of the tomb leaving Juliet to follow, Juliet who is clearly suicidal after seeing the dead Romeo. If Friar Lawrence had dragged Juliet away with him could he have prevented her death? Or would he have just delayed it? What if Friar John had not been held in quarantine and if Friar Lawrence's letter had reached Romeo on time?

Romeo and Juliet were just a boy and a girl who fell in love and tried to move heaven and earth to be together. Shakespeare hasn't attempted to romanticise either of them - he lays open their flaws for all to see. Excesses? Maybe so, but who is to say foolish? Through his books, Shakespeare has always placed the utmost importance on love's consistency, this is apparent through his sonnets. So maybe in writing this, he really believed that when some people love their only other alternative is death. Romeo and Juliet have not attracted people for centuries because their story ends in tragedy, they are famed because of the intensity, the blindness and that unbelievable love that may very well exist only in an imaginary world.

Out of an ordinary love story, Shakespeare has created an extraordinary play that subtly showcases the inconsistencies of human nature from start to finish.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Welsh Girl - Peter Ho Davies

The Welsh Girl has been first and foremost, a surprise. Of the few books that I have read on the wars, Catch 22 included, this one dished up the unexpected in every turn. Peter Ho Davies's remarkable eye for detail conjures up wartime Wales so powerfully that one lives and breathes that tiny village, feels the empty hopelessness of Karsten's bunker in Normandy on D day, suffers along with Rotheram when he hurtles in that old car along those long winding roads and connects with Esther, the female protagonist on a completely different level.

Nothing is as it seems. True words aren't they? Reading The Welsh Girl this thought crossed my mind more than once. Even though the backdrop of the story is World War II, the author achieves his goal of making the reader almost forget the war at times. As if it were a far removed thing. So Rotheram felt. So Karsten felt. So Esther felt. The book focuses first and last on relationships forged and broken as a result of war. As the story progresses, the principal characters cease to exist in real wartime Europe. To them, the war seems like a distant pantomime, something they are not consciously connected to but at the same time, there is a sense of unease about the unknown. What will peace bring? What will defeat mean for Karsten, the frustrated Nazi prisoner of war? What does the war itself mean for Rotheram, the man who continually struggles for identity? Is he German? Is he Jewish? Or an exiled German Jew who became British? How does he deal with that sense of shame that clings to him that makes him deny vehemently his ancestry? How is the presence or absence of war going to change the disruption in Esther's life? What does it mean to her, when she is living in her own personal hell? What does she care? These are some of the questions the author handles with panache and helps you connect to what one might feel is the silly defensiveness of Rotheram, Karsten's eventual horror at having fought for that; Nazi Germany. And Esther, compromised Esther's struggle between necessity and conscience.

Inevitably, they care. The war directly or indirectly is the puppet master of their lives. Try as they may, through reason, choice or circumstance they circle back to it in a myriad subtle ways.

The Welsh Girl is not a heroic book. Great deeds are not done nor are great words spoken. Three very ordinary people are drawn together to one tiny village as the consequence of a far off war, one they fought for, fought against or simply stood by and watched. Their conflicts are no lesser than anyone else's. Their lives change forever, active participant or passive stander-by. And it all begins with the war.

A wonderfully direct take on just how the human heart knows to break barriers and feel and do things it could not have conceived before.

A new start

I do not remember a time when I have not loved to read. It is one of the central things to my happiness, one of those very important things I do that help me maintain a sense of equilibrium. So after nearly two decades of loving and reading and cherishing books, I have plucked up the courage to write about them to the best of my abilities. I fervently hope that what I might lack in terms of true reviewing capability or insight I can make up with my love for the written word. As always, trying to improve while remembering to have fun. Here's to a long life for Dust Jacket :)