Archive for the ‘Literary’ Category

This is one of those books where I watched the film first and instead of being compelled to see the originator of such heart wrenching drama I was completely put off.

You can’t judge a book by its film adaptation any more than you can from its cover, blurb or glowing amazon review. However, each source of unreliable information does indicate the prowess of the writing on some level.

I did not enjoy or hate the film. I was moved by the story but anything remotely related to cancer seems to reduce me to a jibbering wreck.

So, background out of the way, I’ll get to my point now. From the first blast of Anna’s perception of the world I knew this was a great work. The story encompasses six points of view, each with a strong voice and a unique story to tell. Kate’s condition has a profound affect on everyone who meets her and it is how their lives change accordingly rather than the disease itself that forms the heart of the narrative.

Picoult spins an intricate web of emotional suffering and strained relationships. The story flits between present and past without losing the pace or crowding the narrative. It is a cliche to say the book is better than the film but it is a cliche for a reason.

My Sister’s Keeper reminded me of a book I picked up in a local charity shop about three years ago. Again it deals with a parent with a child suffering from an acute form of lukeamia. I would recommend Harvest of Heartache to anyone who was touched by the suffering of families in cancer-stricken times. The recommendation comes with a warning, the latter book had me in floods of tears compared to the sniffle of the former. Then again real life always seems more harrowing than Hollywood.

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A hauntingly emotional read from start to finish. Never Let Me Go is narrated by an ex-Hailsham student now working as a carer for various ‘donors’. Kathy relives her past in the knowledge that she only has a few months left as a carer. Through her story she paints a vivid picture of futile hopes and the beauty of relationships.

In the beautiful setting of Hailsham Kathy develops a close friendship with Ruth, a neurotic and harsh character whom Kathy loves regardless. Aside to this, Kathy begins a more tentative friendship with Tommy, the bad-tempered odd boy the others decide to pick on. As Tommy and Ruth grow closer Kathy gradually finds both relationships become more difficult to maintain though she retains many sentimental memories of both.

When Kathy comes to leave the Cottages, a more grown-up take on the idea of Hailsham where the students are more independent, she is estranged from her childhood and relishes the new challenge of being a carer. When she encounters the old faces once more she is forced to face up to her past and everything her memories meant to her.

Never Let Me Go reminded me of A Time Traveller’s Wife in how it combined romance and drama with elements of science fiction. Though the mechanics of the science part was not dealt with in detail, the moral implications and the consequences make for very interesting and emotional reading.

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What is truth? – Pontius Pilate’s question.

And how mysteriously Jesus answered him – Every one that is of truth heareth my voice.

Once I thought I understood this exchange but no longer.

In setting forth this story of the Mulvaneys, of whom I happen to be the youngest son, yet, I hope, a neutral observer, at least one to set down what is truth. Everything recorded here happened and it’s my task to suggest how, and why … I will include as many “facts” as I can assemble th rest is conjecture, imagined but not invented. Much is based on memory and conversations with family members about things I had not experienced firsthand nor could possibly know except in the way of the heart. (p. 14)

Joyce Carol Oates depicts an idyllic American family, respected by the local community ‘living the dream’. Mike Sr. built up his own business and eventually procured the large plot of land to house his four children and wife and their many, many pets. We Were The Mulvaneys indicates the title something lost about their identity. The story is told through the pen of Judd, the youngest child, who later works for the newspaper.

From the outset of the novel the narration is flawed. Judd claims he wants to record the truth, however, by doing so he has to include untruths as he cannot possibly know every single detail – especially those about his sister who refuses to relay the full details about the night of the prom. Judd’s own observation about how he has to fill in the gaps in his knowledge with educated guesswork is self-reflexive. Any narration in fiction is fictional – it can never encompass truth as by its very genre it is rendered untruth. Autobiography comes close to truth but a fictional character cannot write an autobiography for us to read, it is always through the pen of its creator: the author.

With this tiny paradox in mind, each interchange between the characters takes on an anecdotial facade. The story of how Corinne and Mike Sr. met was an often repeated tale which Judd records as though he was present. Repetition of facts creates in Judd false memories about his family allowing in his mind for him to exist in a world long before he was even conceived.

Judd states in the opening of the novel: “I believe in uttering the truth, even if it hurts. Particularly if it hurts.” (p. 3)   which suggests a masochistic attitute towards story-telling. However as the novel progresses Oates demonstrates through the eyes of Judd the damaging effect concealing the truth from family members has on the family as a whole. The uprooting and abandonment of Marianne is never discussed at the time and Judd is completely unaware that Marianne even wanted to return to High Point Farm for the first Christmas. However this detail is revealed in an exchange between Marianne and Patrick after Patrick has moved away to university. Judd is not in attendence and so the ‘fact’ comes from Judd’s own ‘conjecture’.

An exchange between Patrick and Mike Jr. Judd did overhear himself presents the philosophical paradox of spoke truth: “What you say is always less than you know … So every statement is a lie, we can’t help it.” (p. 96) as it would be impractical to speak every known related fact to support every statement. Writing the truth is somewhat simpler as you have the reader’s attention and can lay down every fact in the structure of an argument or essay.

Truth is resolved, for Patrick at least, at the end of the novel: “what relief in having access to detailed weather facts twenty-four hours a day 365 days a year, you only have to switch on a tiny button to hear so solemn and incantatory a recitation of simple unassailable facts beyond all human subjectivity” (p. 454) Though Mike Jr. claimed it is impossible to speak only in truth Patrick managed to find a source of unending truth which provides him with peace.

Judd finds his truth in his writing. His job description is to “put out a ‘good, decent, truth-telling paper’ and that’s what I’ve been doing and will continue to do.” (p. 6). However when subjective writing is mixed with fact, the truth can be distorted beyond all recognition as is evident every time one watches a news segment, no matter how well credited the source. News is a business and exciting news sells.


Oates, Joyce Carol. We Were The Mulvaneys. London: Fourth Estate, 2001.

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A wonderfully painted if ‘blinkered’ perception of mid-America through the eyes of a naive college student. Lorrie Moore is an articulate and expressive author whose confidence radiates through the text.

A Gate at the Stairs plots the course of college student Tassie through her final year. She exemplifies the typical stereotype of being indecisive about their future and having a rose-tinted perspective on the wider world. Her language and narrations show she attempts to be mature and intellectual in the ‘adult’ world but her comments are superficial. Her circumstances require that she takes on part-time employment to supplement her studies which leads her to the unusual couple Sarah and Edward who adopt a child for Tassie to babysit. The child is of partial African-American descent which raises questions amongst their community about racial issues and parental issues. These ideas are raised, however, in a parent/parent gathering during which Tassie is required to babysit all the children upstairs, just out of earshot. The pieces she does happen to hear are noted down in prolonged lists of dialogue.

Although this novel is carefully constructed, the potential of the storyline is never fully exploited. The sub-plots and twists are glossed over through Tassie’s sense of detachment from the wider world and social situations. She only really connects with Mary-Emma and Reynaldo outside of her own family. Murph, her other friend, is absent from the majority of the novel and when she is present the time is spent focused on their musical achievements rather than engaging and adding new layers to the plots.

The blurb on the reverse of this edition promises: “Tassie is forced out of her naivety, and the past and the future burst forth in dramatic and shocking ways.” This misled me in thinking it would be a gripping fact-finding novel where the ‘mystery’ is hinted at and teased out slowly through revealing dialogue and diy-espionage. Instead, the entire ‘shocking’ revelation is aired over a few glasses of posh wine.

The characters counteract elusive plot. They are by contrast very vivid and unique to A Gate at the Stairs. Moore’s strength in this novel is being able to create very distinct characteristics and mannerisms in relatively few words. Even the supporting characters are vibrant with significantly different dialogue and mannerisms to the other characters in the novel. To be able to create such in a short amount of time allows for more time to focus on the … err … plot.

There are very important issues raised in this novel to do with racism and army service – the ghost of 9/11 hangs prominently over this text – but the book remains decidedly open about what angle it intended to approach these from. If the reader wishes to pursue them it is their own thoughts they will be analysing. A very democratic approach to what could be a sensitive issue.


Moore, Lorrie. A Gate at the Stairs. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 2010.

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