Three Book Reviews: A Matter of Empathy
Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older, but I find it easier to relate to something or someone in most books nowadays. I can even empathise with characters described as ‘weak’, ‘silly’ or ‘unlikeable’. Perhaps because I am that myself! At least part of the time… Perhaps we are all much more fragmented, at conflict, darker, ineffectual than we like to think. Perhaps there are masks which we never take off, even in the privacy of our own rooms, for fear that we have to face a gawping void in the mirror. So here are three books I’ve finished recently, and I freely admit that all of them contain elements that I can relate to.
Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs
Nora Eldridge is full of anger: from the spilling, thrilling outburst at the beginning to the more constructive anger at the end of the novel. She spouts invectives and hints at bleeding wounds, but then the style calms down a little. She becomes once more the ‘woman upstairs’, which in the author’s interpretation is not the ‘mad woman in the attic’ (the uncontrollable feminine power), although of course it slyly references that. In this case, it is the unobtrusive, undemanding, invisible neighbour that you barely speak to, who never complains, who lives in the service of others. So this book is a revolt of the meek. No more little nice girl! Anger becomes a productive force, as, in the wake of disappointments, failures and betrayal, Nora becomes convinced that the best revenge is to show others what she is capable of. She will discard the paralysing sadness and fear or cautiousness which has limited her life thus far. She has spent too long in the Fun House, hoping to find the exit to an authentic life, and seeing nothing but doors closing one after another. Nora will become as ruthless and single-minded as is necessary to pursue her artistic ambitions:
I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me – before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.
While this life-affirming finale is uplifting, I can also see how the rest of the novel could be unappealing to an American audience. The weakness, ineffectual dithering and self-obsessed over-analysis of the main character with her rant of self-pity is a taboo in American society, with its emphasis on taking action, positivism, the ‘you are what you think’ outlook. Nora is not old, but she is starting to resign herself to an unproductive, unfulfilled life, especially in the stifling world of pretentious academia and modern art around Boston and Cambridge, Mass. The descriptions of her small shoe-box creations and the contrast to her friend Sirena’s grandiose, over-the-top installations are more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Are they really innovative, or just jumping on the fashion bandwagon? And the name Sirena itself: surely not a coincidence, reminding us of the dangerous, addictive song of the Sirens. To guard against it, Odysseas has to tie himself to the mast and plug his sailors’ ears with wax.
One other criticism of the book that I’ve come across is that, while it is beautifully nuanced and well written, nothing much happens, i.e. it is too literary. However, I found it exciting, beautifully paced in crescendo, with a dark sense of menace. Something bad is going to happen, but who and what will provoke it?
This will have writers of all persuasions, but especially crime writers, squirming in recognition. Poor David Slavitt is a mid-list author, whose popularity is dipping, slaving over his latest over-due novel, intimidated by the successes of his academic wife and the disdain of her colleagues. Agent-pecked as well as hen-pecked, he goes about his everyday tasks, trying to sort out plot twists between bouts of laundry and childcare, balancing his anxieties about the required level of goriness in his novels with worries about his wife’s possible infidelity. At times his mild ineffectuality and ego are so exasperating that you are willing him to confront his wife openly about adultery. You find yourself hoping that he will act out on his murderous tendencies. The interviews at the police station, in which David is more concerned about his writing career than in proving his innocence, are absolutely hilarious.
‘We’re talking about Julie Everett, your literary agent?’
‘Yes. Though, frankly, I’m not sure for how much longer. As I think I implied earlier, my career’s not going brilliantly at the moment. I narrowly missed winning a big award. And Julie’s not very keen on what I’m currently working on. [...] She doesn’t think I’ve been promoting myself properly. You see, the market’s changed a lot recently.[.. .] And I suppose, to be honest, I’ve made a few mistakes.’
Although the ending felt a little forced and rushed to me, I found this to be a nuanced and very funny novel, not taking itself too seriously, yet with a rather profound underlying message about insecurity, delusion and reality.
You may wonder what I recognise of myself in this sad story about sex-trafficking of women by a Moldovan writer now living in London. It is not the beautiful Ksenia (the girl that is forced into prostitution while on holiday in Italy) that I identify with, but with her ‘blood sister’, Larisa, who is studying in England. Together with their third childhood friend, Doina, she moves heaven and earth to find out what has happened to Ksenia when she goes missing. Larisa represents a cultural bridge between East and West, feeling equally out of place in both worlds, repelled by the backward superstitions in her home country (described as a place where men are either drunk or violent or frequently both), yet not quite fully accepted or integrated into the new culture.
The British TV drama ‘Sex Traffic’ (2004) did a fantastic job of showing both the individual stories of two Moldovan sisters and the global tentacles of the human-trafficking business. However, not all that much has changed since then. Human trafficking continues to be a major problem in Moldova and, although the government has recently cooperated more with NGOs to tackle the issue, it does not comply with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. So this is an important story which needs to be heard. Again.
The title is a play on the ‘Arabian Nights’ theme, and Brinzeanu does come across as a Scheherazade of our times, eager to share stories about her little-known country on the fringes of Europe. This is a debut novel and the author is so brimful of stories that the book feels crammed with facts. The reader may well feel at times lectured at, even if it is disguised as dialogue. The book is at its most successful in those dream-like flashbacks describing the girls’ childhood in a Moldovan village where time seems to have stood still. Perhaps, like Scheherazade, the author needs to learn to select the most relevant scenes and polish those to perfection. There are a lot of gems in there, but they sometimes get lost in the multiple anecdotes.
So over to you, dear reader! Are there any books that have particularly resonated with you lately, any characters you have related to, or does an unlikeable character make you want to stop reading?