Quick Reviews: Santiago Gamboa, Laura Kaye and Helen Dunmore

Sadly, I have little time to write leisurely reviews, so I thought I’d better write these short impressions, before too much time lapses since I read the books.

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk

Having previously enjoyed Dunmore’s novels and having mourned her death earlier this year, I read her last novel with a rather biased view and excessive attention to detail. The strange, uncomfortable marriage of John Diner and Lizzie Fawkes seems to me to be a metaphor for death, and our own twisted relationship with it: longing for it, fearing it, trying to make sense of it, blinding ourselves deliberately to it at times. Above all, there is the dread of being forgotten, of leaving nothing behind – like the unmarked headstone of John’s first wife or the lost works of Lizzie’s writer mother Julia.

This is a slow-moving novel, far too slow perhaps for many readers. It relies upon gradual building of layer upon layer of atmosphere and characterisation. Sometimes the reader jumps ahead with conclusions (certainly in one scene, if they can read French), but the author won’t be rushed along. I won’t lie: initially it was a book that I returned to willingly but not with particular impatience. By the end, however, I grew to love it and it left me with a sense of uncertain chill but also profound satisfaction. If we slow down to the pace of the narrator, we can more fully appreciate the poetic language and allow ourselves to be fully attuned to the story. I enjoyed the beginning of The Essex Serpent more, but I enjoyed the ending of this one more.

Santiago Gamboa: Return to the Dark Valley (transl. Howard Curtis)

I haven’t read Colombian author Gamboa’s previous novel Night Prayers, where two of the characters in this novel first make their appearance. But the novel stands up very well on its own: if you can accept a rather zany stop-and-start beginning, where we move from one point of view to the next. It’s like putting your eye to an old-fashioned kaleidoscopic tube and waiting for the bright colours to resolve themselves into a pattern, but then they morph into something different. We meet troubled Manuela trying to make her way out of poverty and abuse into a life of poetry and love – and being thoroughly let down along the way. A fastidious consul searching for his beloved Juana, whom he wants to rescue from a life of prostitution. Tertuliano, a fiery Argentinian preacher with pronounced racist tendencies. Last but not least, and somewhat surprisingly, the poet Rimbaud, restless lifelong seeker, a devil with the face of an angel. Somehow, all these stories mingle against a backdrop of terrorists holding hostages in the Irish Embassy in Madrid and a newly prosperous Colombia trying to forget its vicious paramilitary past. This tale of learning how to hate and demand revenge is often surprising and has some memorable scenes set in a rather cruel (and uncomfortably familiar) world. It has conviction, but lacks coherence, to my mind.

Laura Kaye: English Animals

At times satirical, at times sad, this is a fearsome and fierce, but not savage depiction of cultural differences. Mirka is a young Slovakian girl who takes on a job as a housekeeper/trainee taxidermist in an English country home. Her bosses Richard and Sophie are by turns generous, chaotic and self-absorbed. Their marriage is a bit of an unknowable mess and puzzles Mirka, and she gets involved more than she should. Some of the secondary characters are completely outrageous, but Richard and Sophie are more like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby: ‘careless people, who smash up things and creatures’ – only in this case they hunt and stuff them. It’s the carelessness which grates more than anything. I suspect that if this book had been written by a non-English person, it would have been far more vicious, and perhaps all the worse for it (but perhaps also better for it, it’s  hard to know). I’m thinking of A.M. Bakalar’s corrosive depiction of cultural differences in Madame Mephisto.


20 thoughts on “Quick Reviews: Santiago Gamboa, Laura Kaye and Helen Dunmore”

  1. Interesting take on Birdcage Walk. I read it before Dunmore’s death, although I knew she was terminally ill. It was the streak of feminism running through the novel that stood out for me.

  2. Interesting point you make about the Dunmore. I must admit I often need to slow my reading pace down, and I suspect that I don’t allow myself the time to always appreciate the prose I’m reading. If I only wasn’t always rushing to finish a book….

    1. I’d recommend starting with The Siege, which is about the siege of Leningrad. She is very good at historical fiction, and making history feel very current somehow.

  3. These are three quite different books, Marina Sofia; I always admire the variety in your reading. And it’s interesting what you say about pacing. People may think of the term ‘slow-paced’ as a criticism. And, it can be. But sometimes, it’s worth slowing down and taking the chance to really reflect on the story or the writing style.

    1. You are absolutely right. Some slower-paced books just don’t do it for me, become repetitive or dull, while other just draw me into their world and way of life.

  4. English Animals is a phenomenal book – I wonder if you’re right about it being more vicious if written by a non-English person, as Kaye seemed pretty clear-eyed about English insularity already. She wrote a fascinating article for the Guardian a few months ago about dating women, and about one particular woman she met who was the inspiration for the character of Mirka.

    1. Well, there is always a little blind spot or leniency if you are from the culture you are viewing (unless you have lived outside it for a long time). Or unless you are Thomas Bernhard, I suppose…

  5. Interesting point about the pace of Birdcage Walk. Sometimes it can take a little while to fall in line with the particular rhythm of a book, especially if it requires close attention. I find this is the case with certain Japanese literature – books like Soseki’s The Gate, for example.

    I have a different Gamboa on the TBR, Necropolis, which seems to be a standalone. I wonder how I’ll find it, especially given your thoughts about the limitations of this latest one!

    1. Necropolis is very intriguing – I think because it is more restricted in time and place, it seems to follow a more conventional structure and just flows better. Let me know what you think!

  6. The Dunmore sounds excellent and I’ll bear in mind what you say about the pacing. I’m a fast reader and I have many books to get through (!), so sometimes it takes me a while to adjust to a slower pace, even though I think I’d benefit from it.

  7. i really liked the Dunmore too, and I think the structure, where she almost deliberately takes away some of the element of page turning surprise. got to find out what happens next, is a well crafted decision, not a foolish one. She absolutely knows how and when and why to ratchet up feverish dramatic tension – and also understands the advantage of slowing a reader down, and making them reflect and muse more

    1. Yes, I am convinced it was deliberate, because it’s the attention to detail which makes this such a powerful story – that gradual realisation that nothing that you believed is really true. Growing up, perhaps.

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