First Two Books of Summer

You may not have seen any reviews up yet, but I started diligently on my list of #20booksofsummer on the 2nd of June. Here are the reviews of my first two reads in this category.

First up was Michel Bussi’s Black Water Lilies, but my tablet decided to throw a hissy fit and run down its batteries every 20 minutes or so, then take days to recharge. Then I got sidetracked by writing on my writing retreat (after all, that was the purpose, otherwise it would have been called a ‘reading retreat’). OK, and I admit, some other books on the endless shelves of the beautiful Verger sous les Vignes (Orchard under the Vineyards, which says it all about the location) also caught my attention. I spent a little time with Jean-Claude Izzo’s short stories (mostly set in Marseille, and of a despairing darkness which fits very well with the current news and atmosphere). I enjoyed the linguistic dexterity of Claire Messud and her depiction of New York life in all its pretentiousness but also poverty in The Emperor’s Children. Besides, I was still reading The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, which requires a deep commitment and power of concentration.

blackwaterliliesSo does that mean that it somehow failed to grab me? Bussi’s novel has, at first sight, all the ingredients that would appeal to me: a picturesque French village setting in Giverny, links with the art world – Monet’s home for the last few decades of his life, a puzzle about a missing painting, a child and a murder, and speculation about artistic heritage. Alas, sadly it does not live up to its premise! I read it to the end in the hope that the last half, third or quarter would redeem it, but that was not the case.

The story takes place over 13 days and starts with the apparently accidental death of Jerome Morval, a successful doctor, whose obsession for art matched his passion for women. It’s also the story of three female figures in the village: the old croon, the beautiful but bored wife, and the young painting prodigy. The team of investigators don’t quite know what to believe and end up duplicating or even triplicating each other in their search for the culprit or to prevent another murder from happening. There is so much foreshadowing it makes your head spin, but it’s not quite justified by the denouement. It’s good enough for a lazy beach read, and more enjoyable (to my mind) than After the Crash, but it doesn’t have me raring to read more by this author.

 

AtlasAriel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart

Another disappointment, which I struggled to finish. Finish it I did, in the hope of some redeeming insight or grand conclusion, but there was none. Or not enough of one!

This is the author’s memoir of her late teens, aged 16-19, back in the late 1980s, when she drops out of high school in the US and goes travelling around Asia and Europe. Ariel is of a similar age to me, so I was curious to see if this was the story of my generation.

The answer is: no. Perhaps it is the story of that generation on the Pacific West Coast, but I think Europeans will struggle to identify with what she says. Her travels take her to Hong Kong, Beijing, Tibet, Nepal, Amsterdam, London and Tuscany, but in all these places she is adrift, far too preoccupied with herself, far too busy doing drugs, drinks and illegal smuggling, entering into loveless relationships, and never actually seeing or truly understanding other people and other cultures. She expresses concern about a Chinese mentee who was questioned by the police, but it still feels cold and distant. This is Privilege-meets-the-rest-of-the-world and thinks a little bit about it, amusingly and from a ‘look at me’ perspective.

As a personal journey it may have some merit, although I found the narrator (which I acknowledge may not be quite the same as the author) infuriating, but as a travelogue it just seems to be one description of a terrible squat after another. The author has been praised for her candour and brave introspection, but this one seems a little too ‘brave’ and too honest for my liking. The prose is choppy, I remain unsure as to what the ultimate message is (if any), and I would hate to burden my child with this level of detail about how her parents met each other and how she was born.

Of course, we have to remember it is the diary of a teenager (and the author has gone on to write wiser and better things), but I think I prefer the Anne Franks or even the self-absorbed but observant Marie Bashkirtseffs of this world.