My childhood dream has come true: couriers deliver stacks of books to my gate, for free. There is simply too much to dedicate an article to just one of them, so today I'm doing a Book Bonanza. Remember those revolving stands in libraries or video stores that you spun around to study the spines of many titles?
When you read a lot of books, plots and characters blend. What remains is the essence, sometimes a vivid scene or two. I'm going to write about five books I've read, without looking at the back covers again. I'll tell only what I retained.
A literary nightmare
On Kerneels's recommendation, I read Yellowface by Rebecca Kuang. It's about Juniper, a struggling writer whose books get published but don't really cause a stir. A university acquaintance, Athena (of Chinese origin), hits the jackpot with her first book and becomes a literary star.
One evening, Juniper eats at Athena's apartment— a rare occurrence. Athena chokes on takeout food and dies. Before leaving the apartment, Juniper looks at Athena's sanctuary, her writing room. Athena had the quirk of producing manuscripts on an outdated typewriter, no copies or electronic versions. And there it is: a completed manuscript next to the typewriter. Juniper picks it up and flees the scene.
The manuscript still needs a lot of work, and she immerses herself in it, rewriting parts, conducting extensive research, pruning and shaping. So much so that she starts to think of it as her own and decides to have it published. The only problem is that it's about China, and Juniper is not Chinese.
Now follows a life of ducking and diving while the money pours in. If you, like me, have a minuscule stake in the publishing industry, it's fascinating to see how random, unpredictable and temperamental the book business is, how much deceit exists, and brown-nosing and influencing. Sometimes it seemed to me the book tells too much and shows too little. It descends into a nightmare that makes you cringe. At the same time, it's funny. Juniper gets her comeuppance from Athena's ghost, her ex-lover, and a whole website dedicated to exposing her. Very readable.
Relationships and insecurities
The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson is set at an American university in the 1950s. Eleanor wants to join the sorority but she is repeatedly rejected, apparently because she is black with kinky hair while everyone else is fair-skinned with straight, shiny hair. How awful and familiar, the reader thinks, only to discover that this is a black university. The fair-skinned girls reign supreme and look down on darker sisters.
However, Eleanor catches the eye of a wealthy, attractive older student with a light complexion. Naturally, his parents strongly oppose the relationship for the same reasons as the sorority. She becomes pregnant and they marry. She loses the baby and cannot conceive again.
There is a second storyline: Ruby, a black teenager, grows up in poverty. She has great talent as a painter. She wants to pursue her studies but there is barely enough money for food. She captures the attention of a Jewish boy who works at the bakery after hours. They fall in love. However, when she becomes pregnant, the boy disappears. She goes to a home for unwed mothers and gives her child up for adoption.
Who will be the parents? Eleanor and her wealthy husband. Thus, the storylines converge. It is a fascinating study of relationships and how people are manipulated by a system and their own insecurities. Naturally, it is a feminist text.
Domestic noir at its blackest
I devoured The Quiet Tenant by Clémence Michallon in one sitting, barely able to look up. It's domestic noir at its darkest and most gripping.
Rachel has been held captive in a shed for five years by Aidan, who kidnapped her. The shed is on the farm where he lives with his wife and daughter. He visits her almost every day, rapes her, provides her with food and water, and empties her chamber pot. She is chained to the floor. Rachel is pure will: she wants to survive and escape. Furthermore, Aidan tells her about more than one woman he has murdered.
Then his wife dies, and the farm is sold. Rachel is cunning and convinces him to take her with him to the new house. She will be obedient. He agrees, and she is introduced to his teenage daughter, Cecilia, as their tenant. She eats with them but knows that if she says something wrong, she will be killed. At night, she is chained to the radiator.
She and Cecilia develop a bond. It also becomes clear that Aidan is regarded in the community as a man with a heart of gold who is always willing to help others.
You will stay awake all night to see how Rachel frees herself. The book is outstanding — it's the debut novel of the French author, written in English no less.
The last three islands
The Ferryman by Justin Cronin is a doorstopper of a book, hailed by Stephen King. But to my taste, it is too apocalyptic.
Civilisation has collapsed and three islands remain. The main one is Prosperos, where people lead protected lives in a well-to-do, problem-free environment. When they grow old, around 130 or so, they cross the waters to Nursery Island, where they cease to exist and are reiterated. Then they return to the main island as teenagers and are placed with parents, since the people of Prosperos are sterile.
The third island is the annexe where ordinary mortals reside: the help. They go to the main island every day to scrape and toil. But rebellion is brewing.
The relationships between characters fascinated me and kept me engaged, but there is, in my opinion, too much science fiction and dreamspace.
Overwhelmed, but surviving
The last book, Claire Kilroy's Soldier Sailor, took my breath away. It's the kind of book that Louis Gaigher enjoys. No storyline or chapter divisions, just the tangled stream of consciousness of a young, overwhelmed mother trying to stay afloat after the birth of her child.
The insane nightmare world of motherhood is depicted. Dad goes to work every day in a suit, plays golf to network, retreats to the guest room because he needs his sleep. Baby is difficult, refusing to eat, refusing to thrive. Mommy is unravelling, and she expresses it in an unforgettable way. Her words disintegrate spectacularly, like poetry or prophecy. They are Irish. This book is still by my bedside, and I'll give you a taste:
And you know men, men, men, nod solemnly at that Blade Runner speech — tears in rain and fires on Orion — and they feel themselves part of a noble endeavour, believe they’ve experienced something epic right there with a beer on the couch. Here’s my ennobling truth, Sailor: women risk death to give life to their babies. They endure excruciating pain, their inner parts torn, then they pick themselves up no matter what state they are in, no matter how much blood they’ve lost, and they tend to their infants. Your fires on Orion and your Luke, I am your father. Tell me, men: when were you last split open from the inside?
What, where, and how much?
Yellowface by Rebecca Kuang was published by HarperCollins and costs R365 at Exclusive Books.
The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson was published by Little, Brown Book Group and costs R265 at Loot.
The Quiet Tenant by Clémence Michallon was published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and costs R424 at Loot.
The Ferryman by Justin Cronin was published by Orion Publishing Co and costs R430 at Exclusive Books.
Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy was published by Faber & Faber and costs R385 at Exclusive Books.
What are we listening to? “Classical Music for Reading" — Mozart, Chopin, Debussy, Tchaikovsky.
♦ VWB ♦
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