Monday 27 December 2010

Something(s) Borrowed...

I've been more of a buyer than a borrower over the past few years, content to shell out for a few books every now and then to add to the growing mound in my rapidly-shrinking study.  However, this year has seen a lot more library visits and the appearance of a fair few borrowed novels on the pages of my little blog.  I'd like to put it down to thriftiness, an increase in public spirit or a desire to make use of community facilities; in fact, it's completely down to the fact that there are only so many places you can take a three-year-old on father-daughter outings, and the library is most certainly one of them.

Whatever the reason, 2010 has produced many more library book reviews than 2009, and as we head rapidly towards the end of the year, here are another three novels which won't be finding a permanent home on my bookshelves.  A good thing or a bad thing?  Well, read the reviews, and you'll find out...

Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes is a collection of five short stories, all connected, either loosely or inseparably, by the theme of music.  The quintet of tales are set in different countries, but most involve some sort of chance meeting and a hefty element of nostalgia and regret, before tailing off into a quiet - diminuendo?  I think I'll stop looking for musical metaphors now...

As always, Ishiguro's writing is impeccable, capturing the right tone of voice whether his characters be Swiss tourists, Hungarian cellists or Hollywood stars.  The stories slip by comfortably, each one forming intriguing questions in your mind before fading out, only to be followed by the next one.  The only criticism you could really lay at the writer's feet is that 222 pages of extremely spacious type hardly seems like the fruit of a few years' hard labour - then again, if he needs to relax that much before making his literary music, who am I to complain?

All in all, more Eine kleine Nachtmusik than Der Ring des Nibelungen, but that's not a bad thing.  Sometimes, you just need a little something to relax to, and, in this sense, Nocturnes certainly hits the spot.  I've recently acquired a couple of his novels to join the two on my shelves, and with the other two on my Book Depository wishlist, 2011 may well be the year of Ishiguro.  Nevertheless, whether this happens or not, one thing's for sure - it's time to cut down on the musical puns :)

Now Ian McEwan is a slightly less-relaxed writer, but he still produces some entertaining work.  Saturday is one day in the life of a man, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, as he enjoys his day off and roams far and wide through the streets of London.  Of course, on this particular day, in 2003, he doesn't just stay in bed and watch telly later (that wouldn't really fill out 250 pages); he has a packed schedule, and his day unfolds against the backdrop of a massive demonstration against the decision to go to war in Iraq.

This post-September 11th world is an important background, as McEwan, through Perowne's eyes, is exploring the idea of a world which has seemingly come to an impasse, a machine which has developed itself so far that the only way to improve it further is to tear it all down and start again.  Traffic-congested motorways and antiquated hospitals full of junk and paperwork which nobody can find the time to throw away are used as examples of our inability to keep up with the pace of progress.  In a time of global uncertainty, it really seems as if the whole thing could come crashing down at any moment.

Perowne's occupation is no coincidence either, as McEwan makes parallels between the ageing, crumbling city and the natural ageing of the human body - and the brain.  As he drills inside heads, exploring the neural pathways in an attempt to improve his patients' lives, he is only too aware of the limitations of his craft.  Even in his own family, he can see the inexorable march of time at work, both in good ways (the maturing of his adult son and daughter) and bad (the effects of dementia on his mother).
I almost bought Saturday a few weeks back, and I half wish I had.  McEwan tries to pack a lot into a short space, and while comparisons with Ulysses (one of the blurbs!) are a little ambitious, you can see where the idea is coming from, with the book's focus on one man on one day in a major city.  I did have a few quibbles with the story though.  Perowne comes across as a little unlikeable and aloof (hardly an ordinary man in the Leopold Bloom mode), and the dramatic events around which the day revolves (and which I haven't really mentioned here) seem a little contrived, and even superfluous.  Oh, and McEwan can't get through a book without a sex scene, even when there's not really much call for it - still, don't let that put you off :)

The third of my borrowed trio is a little different from my usual fare, and I put a hold on it after reading several glowing reviews from other bloggers.  Purge, by Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen (translated by Lola Rogers), is a book which has made lots of waves in the European literary scene.  In a flash-back/forward framework, two women - Aliide, an old Estonian woman, and Zara, a young Russian - meet under unusual circumstances, and as the story progresses, we get to learn details of their earlier lives and the bond which connects them.  With themes of war, occupation, identity, betrayal and sexual slavery, this promised to be impressive.

But.  I don't think it got there.  I had real problems getting into this book, and if I were one of those people who only gave books a certain grace period before giving up, this novel would have been going back to the library unfinished.  Luckily, after about 115 pages (just after I'd tweeted complaining about how slow the book was!), the story picked up, probably because we started to learn more about Aliide, by far the more interesting of the two characters.

I think that one of the main issues was with the development of Zara's side of the story.  It felt slow, plodding, contrived, and for such a controversial and emotive subject, it just didn't make me feel anything except a desire to skip a few pages.  The sizeable gaps in her story didn't help me to warm to her either...  The format was also a little strange, with very short sections at times, almost inviting me to put the book down and come back later (if I could be bothered).  As for the last section, consisting of Soviet police reports...

I hate it when I read books other people have recommended and then feel obliged to be less than complimentary (and this book does have a lot of good points, especially the way Oksanen slowly unveils Aliide's true nature), but I'd be less than truthful if I were to say I really liked Purge.  It's worth reading if you're interested in the content, but I think that there are much better books and writers around.  In the interests of fairness though, I will finish on a more positive note.  When I searched for reviews of this book, I quickly found out that I was pretty much on my own here; virtually every blog review of Purge gave it five stars...