Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees CoverThe People in the Trees [2013] – ★★★★1/2  

The People in the Trees is a debut novel of Hanya Yanagihara, a writer now best known for her second book A Little Life, a 2015 Man Booker Prize nominee. The People in the Trees is partly an anthropological travelogue, partly a jungle adventure mystery, and party a covert character study, having enough disturbing elements to make its readers feel uncomfortable and even indignant about the content. However, these do not make the book any less masterful. Beautifully-written, The People in the Trees reads for the most part like a memoir/diary detailing Dr Norton Perina’s travel to an isolated Micronesian island country in the 1950s to find and study a “lost tribe”. He did so alongside a talented anthropologist Dr Tallent (who is himself a mystery) and Tallent’s colleague Esme Duff. The mysteries Perina uncovers on the island are shockingly significant, revolutionising what is known about science/medicine and having to do with immortality. Yanagihara fuses pseudo-factual scientific writings with some fantastic elements to rather impressive results, and it all would have been rather delightful and pleasing if the content were not also so devastatingly horrific. The only thing that lets this ambitious book down is that Yanagihara cannot quite manage to strike a balance or make a smooth transition between the book passages that detail the implications of Perina’s island discovery and later elements which deal with Perina’s own character insights.

Continue reading “Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara”

Advertisements

Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Moth Smoke Cover Moth Smoke [2000] – ★★★★1/2    

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist [2007] is one of my favourite novels. Therefore, I had high expectations prior to reading Hamid’s debut book Moth Smoke [2000]. These expectations were met. In Moth Smoke, Darashikoh Shezad or Daru is a hash-smoking banker living in Lahore, Pakistan who rekindles his friendship with his childhood friend Ozi, who is now an influential and rich man living under the protection of his equally influential, but corrupt father. Daru also realises that he is attracted to Ozi’s wife Mumtaz, and, among his friends is also a shady character Murad Badshah, who sometimes acts as his drugs supplier. After Daru is fired from his job, his societal divide from influential and rich Ozi grows even further, and he finds himself on the dark path towards immorality and crime. Moth Smoke is a fascinating, eye-opening journey into Lahore’s criminal underbelly, which makes observations on the societal class divisions and east vs. west mentality conflicts. But, it is also so much more than that: it has an experimental structure and style (with at least four unreliable narrators); employs symbolism and fable-like story-telling; and becomes a book about the limits of morality, friendship and love, while also exploring the nature of guilt and the malleability of truth.  Continue reading “Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid”

Review: The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette

The World That Made New Orleans Book Cover The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square [2008] – ★★★★★ 

Since my previous post related to Mardi Gras celebrations, it is fitting now to talk about New Orleans, and I am presenting a curious non-fiction book by Ned Sublette, the author behind Cuba and Its Music [2004]. The World That Made New Orleans is a fascinating book that traces the history of New Orleans, Louisiana, from around 1492 to the nineteenth century: from the city’s humble beginnings on swamp soils to the French Spanish, British-American colonisations, and finally the city’s growth and ultimate urbanisation in the nineteenth century. This is not one’s ordinary history non-fiction book, however. Ned Sublette pays due attention to the music tradition of the area, its unique and changing slavery regimes, and spends time explaining why New Orleans became the diverse, jazz-pioneering and carnival-hosting city it is known today. Ambitious and well-researched, this insightful book provides an eye-opening journey into historical and cultural peculiarities of New Orleans. This is definitely the story of New Orleans like you have never read before.  Continue reading “Review: The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette”

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus Cover The Night Circus [2011]  – ★★★1/2 

The Harry Potter generation is growing up, becoming a dominant group of consumers, and it seems that those books that contain magic or fairy-tale elements have the biggest chance of success in the market (see also Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2004]). The Night Circus can be considered as yet another book which was written on the back of the success of Harry Potter and its atmosphere of magic. The Night Circus was also originally written as part the NaNoWriMo competition, and contains non-linear, multiple viewpoints narrative. In this story, two “magicians” have arranged for their protégés to compete against each other in a mysterious magic competition. Hector has bound his young daughter Celia to compete against Marco, a protégé of a mysterious man named only as Alexander. Little the “magicians” suspect that Celia and Marco may grow up to be attracted to each other romantically, meaning that the competition may end up to be far from the battle it is meant to be. Meanwhile, Chandresh Lefèvre, a theatrical producer, has plans to set up a different kind of a circus, which functions as a completely “immersive entertainment” for the crowds, providing “a unique experience, a feast for the senses” [Morgenstern, 2011: 74]. The strength of The Night Circus lies in Morgenstern’s ability to establish a truly magical atmosphere (of the circus), as well as in the building of an enchanting, fairy tale-like beginning. The main weakness of the book remains in the plotting and in the establishment of the drama. It seems that Morgenstern was so taken by the task of immersing the reader into her magic circus atmosphere that she forgot to pay attention to the need for a dramatic plot or a hero’s journey. The result is that The Night Circus is almost predictable, devoid of any drama excitement or even a story in a strict sense of this word. In the author’s zeal to establish a Romeo & Juliet-setting for Celia and Marco, she also managed to present romantic love which is very unsympathetic (see the spoiler section below).  Continue reading “Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern”

Review: Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau

texaco book cover Texaco [1992] – ★★★★★ 

You say “History” but that means nothing. So many lives, so many destinies, so many tracks go into the making of our unique path. You dare say History, but I say histories, stories. The one you take for the master stem of our manioc is but one stem among many others.…” 

Some books shine through times, forever stirring spirits” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 325].

Some books have such a distinct, authentic voice, which tells of the plight of ordinary people, that they cannot fail to move their readers, defying logical book analyses. Martinique-born Patrick Chamoiseau wrote such precise book, with such a distinctive voice at the core of it, and it is called Texaco, published in French in 1992 (translated by Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997). This undoubtedly great book, which received the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1992, reads almost like a fable, rather than a story, and evades strict categorisation. What can be said for certain is that the novel is undeniably powerful in its transmission of the emotion and the message. Told through the voice of the high-spirited, determined, but disadvantaged woman Marie-Sophie Laborieux, it presents a turbulent period in the history of Martinique, the French overseas territory, and focuses almost entirely on individual lives and life episodes. At the centre of this story, which spans from 1823 to 1980, is, at first – Esternome, an ex-plantation slave, and, later, his daughter, our narrator, – Marie-Sophie, who are both determined to survive through extreme hardship and discrimination to fight for their loved ones’ and their people’s right to live and enjoy freedom on their native soil. Sometimes the story reads like a highly subjective, almost chaotic, but matter-of-fact narrative, and at other times it takes a form of a strangely lyrical and poetic piece, which is even similar to a national ballad. The story may even sometimes appear in the form of a cry or a lamentation, a strange ode to the Creole culture, language and tradition. The impressive thing is that whatever mode the novel employs or impression it gives, it never loses its vitality, its importance, its power, its emotion. This is the story of and by the generations who fought hard for their right to exist and prosper, and it is this unique perspective which makes this book so exceptional.  

Continue reading “Review: Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau”

Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

The Bedlam Stacks Cover The Bedlam Stacks [2017] – ★★★

You’re not off to find the Northwest Passage on a thousand-mile plain of ice populated by six Esquimaux and an owl. It’s only Peru” [Pulley, 2017: 46].

When I found out that there is a book set in Peru, takes place in the 19th century, and concerns itself with Incan mythology, I knew immediately I had to read it because all these things appeal to me immensely. In the book by Pulley, we meet an explorer Merrick Tremayne, previously of the East India Company, who now resides in Cornwall with his brother. He has an injured leg and no prospects in England since his family fortunes are in decline. When his friend Clem visits him and suggest that he goes to Peru to fetch cinchona cuttings (which yields quinine), which can then help to cure malaria in India (on the orders of the East India Company), it seems like an impossible task. This is not least because there is a local monopoly regarding the trees in the region, and the journey can prove to be very dangerous. Merrick goes to Peru, with the aim to reach the village of Bethlehem or Bedlam, and soon finds that he needs to rethink his understanding of indigenous traditions, history and beliefs, and do it quickly if he wants to survive. The Bedlam Stacks is steeped in Incan folklore and has an eerie atmosphere, providing for a curious read. However, this book was definitely not a page-turner for me. It has a messy and confusing overall theme, caricature presentations, some unclear and dull descriptions, and – what I believe – a very unsympathetic character in the centre, all making the reading experience less enjoyable.  Continue reading “Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley”

Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

washington black cover Washington Black [2018] – ★★★ 

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018, Washington Black has certainly been on many readers’ radar. This is the tale of Washington Black, a young boy who is initially a slave on a plantation in Barbados. This is where we begin the journey: the year is 1830 and the setting is Faith Plantation, Barbados. Young Washington (or Wash) is raised by Big Kit, a female slave, who looks after him. Like the rest, Wash witnesses the death of his old master, and sees how his new master – cruel Erasmus Wilde – takes control of the farm. Wash then becomes an assistant to the eccentric brother of Erasmus – Christopher Wilde or just Titch. What follows is the adventure which Wash never imagined (but we, probably, all did). In fact, as an adventure, the story is predictable, rather boring, at times too unbelievable, and, strangely, unexciting. Edugyan introduced several exciting and even original plot lines (such as scientific endeavours), but all of them are dropped before they are allowed to continue. The characters are rather caricaturish and shallow, and even though the beginning and the writing are strong, the issue is still that there is nothing fresh in this story (it follows a very familiar journey). The author has virtually nothing original or fascinating to add to an already long and established (“done-to-death”) literary theme of slave liberation, and hardship and discrimination experienced by a community outcast living in the early nineteenth century. Continue reading “Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan”