A young woman finds herself while caring for an embittered quadriplegic in this second novel from British author Moyes (The Last Letter from Your Lover, 2011).
Louisa has no apparent ambitions. At 26, she lives with her working-class family (portrayed with rollicking energy) in a small English town, carries on a ho-hum relationship with her dull boyfriend and works at a local cafe. Then, the cafe closes, and she must find a job fast to ease her family’s financial stress. Enter Will Traynor, a former world traveler, ladies’ man and business tycoon who’s been a quadriplegic since a traffic accident two years ago. Will’s magistrate mother hires Louisa at a relatively hefty salary to be Will’s caregiver and keep him company for the next six months—easygoing Nathan gives him his medical care and physiotherapy—but really Will’s mother wants Louisa to watch him so he doesn’t try to hurt himself. Will, once handsome and powerful, is not only embittered, but in constant pain. He has some use of one hand but is dependent on others for his basic needs, and recovery is not possible. Louisa, who can’t help speaking her mind and dresses thrift-store eccentric, thinks he hates her, but no surprise, Louisa’s sprightly, no-nonsense charms win him over. He even cheers her up on occasion. When Louisa overhears Will’s mother talking to his sister, she realizes that the Traynors have reluctantly agreed to let Will commit suicide at a facility in six months. Louisa decides to convince him to stay alive with a series of adventures. Meanwhile, Will, who senses something in her past has made Louisa fearful of adventure, is trying to broaden her experience through classical music and books. Their feelings for each other deepen. But Louisa is not Jane Eyre, and Will is not Mr. Rochester in a wheelchair, so don’t expect an easy romantic ending.
Despite some obviousness in the storyline, this is uplift fiction at its best, with fully drawn characters making difficult choices.
This is a book which courts the dangers of two extremes. It can be taken not seriously enough or, more likely, critical climate considered, too seriously. Kesey's first novel is narrated by a half-Indian schizophrenic who has withdrawn completely by feigning deaf-muteness. It is set in a mental ward ruled by Big Nurse — a monumental matriarch who keeps her men in line by some highly original disciplinary measures: Nursey doesn't spank, but oh that electric shock treatment! Into the ward swaggers McMurphy, a lusty gambling man with white whales on his shorts and the psychology of unmarried nurses down to a science. He leads the men on to a series of major victories, including the substitution of recent issues of Nugget and Playboy for some dated McCall's. The fatuity of hospital utilitarianism, that alcohol-swathed brand of idiocy responsible for the custom of waking patients from a deep sleep in order to administer barbiturates, is countered by McMurphy's simple, articulate, logic. This is a thoroughly enthralling, brilliantly tempered novel, peopled by at least two unforgettable characters. (Big Nurse is custom tailored for a busty Eileen Heckert.) Though extension is possible, make no mistake about it; this is a ward and not a microcosm.
A presold prefab blockbuster, what with King's Carrie hitting the moviehouses, Salem's Lot being lensed, The Shining itself sold to Warner Bros. and tapped as a Literary Guild full selection, NAL paperback, etc. (enough activity to demand an afterlife to consummate it all).
The setting is The Overlook, a palatial resort on a Colorado mountain top, snowbound and closed down for the long, long winter. Jack Torrance, a booze-fighting English teacher with a history of violence, is hired as caretaker and, hoping to finish a five-act tragedy he's writing, brings his wife Wendy and small son Danny to the howling loneliness of the half-alive and mad palazzo. The Overlook has a gruesome past, scenes from which start popping into the present in various suites and the ballroom. At first only Danny, gifted with second sight (he's a "shiner"), can see them; then the whole family is being zapped by satanic forces. The reader needs no supersight to glimpse where the story's going as King's formula builds to a hotel reeling with horrors during Poesque New Year's Eve revelry and confetti outta nowhere....
Back-prickling indeed despite the reader's unwillingness at being mercilessly manipulated.
An enigmatic British man locks himself indefinitely in a guest room during a party, altering forever the lives of four people who barely know him.
Charming and intelligent, Miles Garth is in many ways a desirable guest. And when he accompanies handsome 60-year-old Mark Palmer to Genevieve and Eric Lee’s annual “alternative” dinner party in Greenwich, it is assumed Miles is the older man’s new lover. He is not, and has in fact just met Mark at a theater performance. Halfway through the meal, Miles heads upstairs ostensibly to use the bathroom, and does not come back down. Sequestered in the Lees’ extra room, he offers no explanation but does pass a note requesting vegetarian meals be sent under the door. At a loss over what to do, Genevieve tracks down Anna Hardie, a Scottish woman who met Miles briefly when they were teenagers. As Anna recalls his kindness to her during a school trip, she begins to come to terms with her own past and uncertain future. Miles has that affect on people. Anna also befriends Brooke, a precocious, lonely 9-year-old neighbor girl who met Miles at the party as well. Meanwhile, news of Miles’ weird sit-in ripples throughout the community, and people begin to think of him as some kind of folk hero with almost mystical powers. That Miles is both more and less than he appears to be is part of the fun in this witty, deconstructed mystery. With its shifting points of view, Smith (The First Person: and Other Stories, 2009, etc.) displays a virtuoso gift for channeling her character's inner voices. Happily, the book manages to wear its profundity lightly. Offbeat exploration of the human need to connect with others.
The search for the lock that fits a mysterious key dovetails with related and parallel quests in this (literally) beautifully designed second from the gifted young author (Everything Is Illuminated, 2002).
The searcher is nine-year-old Oskar Schell, an inventive prodigy who (albeit modeled on the protagonist of Grass’s The Tin Drum) employs his considerable intellect with refreshing originality in the aftermath of his father Thomas’s death following the bombing of the World Trade Center. That key, unidentified except for the word “black” on the envelope containing it, impels Oskar to seek out every New Yorker bearing the surname Black, involving him with a reclusive centenarian former war correspondent, and eventually the nameless elderly recluse who rents a room in his paternal grandma’s nearby apartment. Meanwhile, unmailed letters from a likewise unidentified “Thomas” reveal their author’s loneliness and guilt, while stretching backward to wartime Germany and a horrific precursor of the 9/11 atrocity: the firebombing of Dresden. In a riveting narrative animated both by Oskar’s ingenuous assumption of adult responsibility and understanding (interestingly, he’s “playing Yorick” in a school production of Hamlet) and the letter-writer’s meaningful silences, Foer sprinkles his tricky text with interpolated illustrations that render both objects of Oskar’s many interests and the word and memories of a survivor who has forsworn speech, determined to avoid the pain of loving too deeply. The story climaxes as Oskar discovers what the key fits, and also the meaning of his life (all our lives, actually), in a long-awaited letter from astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.
Much more is revealed as this brilliant fiction works thrilling variations on, and consolations for, its plangent message: that “in the end, everyone loses everyone.” Yes, but look what Foer has found.
With all the wit and stylistic aplomb we've come to expect of her, Spark casts a withering glance at some fringe characters who people London literary life at mid-century. But the merely odd—goofy publishers, fatuous editors, etc.—takes an evil turn, as this delightful comedy of manners reveals a darker tale of obsessions and revenge. What keeps things relatively light here is Spark's unflappable narrator, a young war widow who proves to be a talented "general do-all" for a number of publishing houses. Though only 28, Mrs. Hawkins is treated as "a matronly goddess of wisdom" both by her colleagues at work and her fellow boarders at a rooming house in So. Kensington. A compulsive advice-giver, this "remarkably reliable woman" also takes on the troubles of others, partly because her own obesity deprives her of a rich private life. All of her problems begin, however, when she lets slip a devastating criticism of one particular literary ne'er-do-well, Hector Bartlett, a hack whom she terms a "pisseur de copie"—"a urinator of journalistic copy." Her refusal to recant this catchy epithet gets her fired from her first job with a failing firm run by a sodden embezzler. Her next employer, the house of Mackintosh & Tooley, hopes to publish the work of Bartlett's mentor, a talented novelist who would just as soon be rid of him. But Mrs. Hawkins, all the while peeling off pounds, refuses to edit Bartlett's execrable manuscript, The Eternal Quest. Though she eventually finds work as managing editor of a highbrow quarterly run by two American refugees from McCarthyism, the slimmed-down Mrs. Hawkins—who now calls herself by her first name, Nancy—discovers that Bartlett is behind a number of strange doings back at the rooming house. A bizarre series of events involving her fellow boarder, a nervous Polish dressmaker, leads to the latter's suicide, the result of Bartlett's psychosexual manipulations, all of which have been unknown to Nancy, upon whom he hoped to wreak ultimate vengeance. A postscript set 30 years later confirms the power of her accurate epithet for the loathsome miscreant. Spark treats the reader to Mrs. Hawkins' common-sensical advice on everything from weight-loss and insomnia to marriage and religion. But the greater pleasure comes from the surprising tidiness of this gently moral tale.
A contemporary master of highbrow gothic fiction, McGrath (Dr. Haggard's Disease, 1993, etc.) sticks to worldly psychopathology in his icy new novel.
At the center of this study in "morbid obsessional sexual compulsion'' is Stella Raphael, a British woman of extraordinary beauty married to a dull, unimaginative, cold forensic psychiatrist. Which makes life hard for the passionate Stella, who soon finds herself infatuated with one of the inmates at the maximum security institution where her husband works. Edgar Stark, a sculptor with a distinct "animal vitality,'' suffers from ``morbid delusions.'' Insane jealousy inspired by these delusions led him to bludgeon his wife to death. A trusty at the hospital, Edgar works on the grounds of Stella's house, where their daily chats soon escalate into sweaty ruttings in the gazebo. After Edgar escapes, Stella follows him, but life underground with Edgar in London quickly becomes hard and shabby, and Stella misses her ten- year-old son. When Edgar's explosive jealousy emerges once again, Stella goes home. Her husband loses his job, and the family is forced into exile in Wales. In deep depression, Stella engages in meaningless sex with her landlord, drinks herself into a stupor, and watches, helpless, as her son drowns on a school outing. Found to be negligent, judged to be mad, she winds up in the very institution where her husband used to work, and where Stark is now an inmate again. But the real twist to this otherwise melodramatic tale is the narrator, himself a staff psychiatrist who treats both Stella and Edgar, and who also has designs on Stella—yet another man trying to possess this free spirit. The unreliability of the narrator, the intense psychological layerings of the narrative, and the fevered interpretations of events by McGrath's characters make for a truly complex (but never obscure) novel.
McGrath, always a worthy descendant of Poe, here takes things a level higher—producing fiction in the tradition of Henry James. (First printing of 75,000; author tour)
Fast on the heels of Paul Theroux's best-selling The Happy Isles of Oceania (p. 525) comes this equally polished but far more jaded view of Pacifica by English journalist Evans. While Theroux senses cosmic mysteries in the vast Pacific, Evans sees creepiness and rot. Perhaps his venture is doomed at the outset, inspired as it is by magazine photos of Peacekeeper missiles arcing over the Pacific. But travel appeals to him, albeit for reasons often left unsaid: ``The consolation of travel is the control it offers to cowards: you get up and leave; you abandon people....'' He boats into sleazy New Caledonia on the tail of a storm that blows ``with pentecostal force'' (an apt image, for Protestant missionaries swarm over these islands). There, he finds rumors of mermaids, and political strife that puts banana republics to shame. In dreary Fiji, with its villages of cinder block and tin, he meets caved-in Europeans and remarks that ``funerals are more enjoyable than weddings by a long way.'' On to New Hebrides, where ``cockroaches the size of moles swaggered across the floor'' and where he is jolted by the ``unblinking, solemn gravity of the natives'' and by kava, a local hallucinogen. With Western Samoa comes kerosene-poisoning and a noxious dose of heat, flies, and lassitude, but also beautiful women with fetching tattoos and the grave of his beloved Robert Louis Stevenson. Tonga, Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, and onwards—a roll call of sunburnt specks of dirt rife with poverty, promiscuity, religious fanaticism, and junk food. It hasn't always been this way, as Evans shows through frequent descriptions of earlier visits by Francis Drake, James Cook, Herman Melville, and the like; but, now, decay seems the order of the day. Maybe Evans should have stayed at home. We'd be the losers, though, for his mordant, Dantean travelogue offers a number of grotesque, cleverly crafted delights.
The first novel in five years from the ever-popular Kingsolver (Pigs in Heaven, 1993, etc.) is a large-scale saga of an American family’s enlightening and disillusioning African adventure. It begins with a stunningly written backward look: Orleanna Price’s embittered memory of the uncompromising zeal that impelled her husband, Baptist missionary Nathan Price, to take her and their four daughters to the (then) Belgian Congo in 1959, and remain there despite dangerous evidence of the country’s instability under Patrice Lumumba’s ill-starred independence movement, Belgian and American interference and condescension, and Joseph Mobutu’s murderous military dictatorship. The bulk of the story, which is set in the superbly realized native village of Kilanga, is narrated in turn by the four Price girls: Leah, the “smart” twin, whose worshipful respect for her father will undergo a rigorous trial by fire; her —retarded” counterpart Adah, disabled and mute (though in the depths of her mind articulate and playfully intelligent); eldest sister Rachel, a self-important whiner given to hilarious malapropisms (“feminine tuition”; “I prefer to remain anomalous”); and youngest sister Ruth May, whose childish fantasies of union with the surrounding, smothering landscape are cruelly fulfilled. Kingsolver skillfully orchestrates her characters— varied responses to Africa into a consistently absorbing narrative that reaches climax after climax—and that, even after you’re sure it must be nearing its end, continues for a wrenching hundred pages or more, spelling out in unforgettable dramatic and lyric terms the fates of the surviving Prices. Little recent fiction has so successfully fused the personal with the political. Better even than Robert Stone in his otherwise brilliant Damascus Gate, Kingsolver convinces us that her characters are, first and foremost, breathing, fallible human beings and only secondarily conduits for her book’s vigorously expressed and argued social and political ideas. A triumph.
“Things are not what they seem.” If Murakami’s (After Dark, 2008, etc.) ambitious, sprawling and thoroughly stunning new novel had a tagline, that would be it.
Things are not what they seem, indeed. A cab driver tells a protagonist named Aomame—her name means “green beans”—as much, instructing her on doing something that she has never done before and would perhaps never dream of doing, even if she had known the particulars of how to do it: namely, to descend from an endless traffic jam on an elevated expressway by means of a partially hidden service staircase. Aomame is game: She’s tough, with strong legs, and she doesn’t mind if the assembled motorists of Tokyo catch a glimpse of what’s under her skirt as she drops into the rabbit hole. Meanwhile, there’s the case of Tengo, a math teacher who, like Aomame, is 30 years old in 1984; dulled even as Japan thrives in its go-go years, he would seem to have almost no ambition, glad to serve as the ghostwriter for a teenage girl’s torrid novel that will soon become a bestseller—and just as soon disappear. The alternate-universe Tokyo in which Aomame reappears (her first tipoff that it’s not the “real” Tokyo the fact that the cops are carrying different guns and wearing slightly different uniforms), which she comes to call 1Q84, the q for question mark, proves fertile ground for all manner of crimes, major and minor, in which she involves herself. Can she ever click her heels and get back home? Perhaps not, for, as she grimly concludes at one point in her quest, “The door to this world only opened in one direction.” It’s only a matter of time before Aomame’s story becomes entangled in Tengo’s—in this strange universe, everyone sleeps with everyone—and she becomes the object of his own hero quest; as he says, “Before the world’s rules loosen up too much…and all logic is lost, I have to find Aomame.” Will he? Stay tuned.
Orwellian dystopia, sci-fi, the modern world (terrorism, drugs, apathy, pop novels)—all blend in this dreamlike, strange and wholly unforgettable epic.