Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Embassy of Cambodia, Zadie Smith

And the wonderful Zadie Smith has written another wonderful story in The Embassy of Cambodia, a short, sharp insight into a snippet of the life of Fatou, an indentured housekeeper in London. I love Smith’s writing, the density of meaning in her prose, its loaded quality.

This book uses an obscure “embassy of Cambodia” which appears in the London suburb of Willesden. The narrator has no idea about Cambodia, where it is, its history. But she regularly passes the Embassy and watches from outside the walls, a badminton shuttlecock sail back and forth – “Pock. Smash. Pock. Smash.” Fatou’s story unfolds in segments, told between the folds of her. Insane existence in London. Readers hear about her father, swimming, an encounter in a hotel with a Russian man. For all she has endured, Fatou has simple desires and expectations. She accepts her lot in life, the limitations placed on her by her class, position, culture and gender. Beneath this acceptance, Smith has woven a fascinating commentary on modern society:

“The fact is if we followed the history of every little country in this world – in its dramatic as well as quiet times – we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or to apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures, like swimming. Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?”

This conundrum is at the centre of Smith’s concerns – “Was it wrong to hope to be happy?” How far should Fatou seek to find herself a place in this new world? Where should she settle and with what and whom?

I can’t hide the fact that I think Zadie Smith is a true genius. Even just this short story is filled to the brim with wonder and awe inspiring insights. It is well worth the read.

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The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

Well, I did it. I finished this massive weight of a novel. Finally. I feel as though I have been through a heavy storm and barely survived, coming out at the other side all sullied and muddied and muddled. I can’t shake the feeling that I have missed something central and important in this book. I’m not certain whether this is a product of the fact that it took me so long to read or whether there was indeed something else that I was supposed to gather …

I quite liked Catton’s structure, the way she prefaced each chapter with a little blurb. That helped me navigate my way through the various characters and the complexity of the plots and sub plots and sub sub plots. I did find though that by the end I was a bit over these blurbs and really just wanted a sense of resolution which I am still not sure that I have.

I was unfamiliar with the era that Catton describes in this book and I found this context fascinating and enlightening. It is clear that a large volume of formidable research has gone into constructing this very true to life account of the gold rush and life in New Zealand in the 1860s. I dare to say that this alone makes this book worth reading – especially for the historically naive, like me!

I confess that I struggled enormously with all the celestial references and if the book wasn’t so daunting and large and hard to read the first time, I would probably read it again just to pay closer attention to the phases of the moon and their significance … For there is clearly some significance to this and I expect that it contributes to the essence of the book itself.

In short, I am glad I read it, if only because of the Everest scaling feeling that I now have. However, I am not sure that I actually enjoyed it and I am even more uncertain that I would recommend it to all readers. I won’t deny that it is prize worthy and that it represents a great feat of accomplishment on so many levels for the author, but it left me wanting.

Frog Music, Emma Donoghue

Frog Music is nothing like Donoghue’s much acclaimed novel, Room. It is different in every way and that struck me as quite remarkable. So often writers fall into a groove of sorts and then struggle to emerge from the other side and recreate themselves anew. Donoghue has indeed proven her abilities as a master of a particular kind in this book.

Set in San Francisco in 1876, Frog Music is an historical fiction. One of the most powerful elements of this tale is not the plot, nor the characters, but rather the atmosphere of the city as it sweltered in an unusually hot and plague ridden summer. The street scenes in this book breathe with a life of their own and the cityscape is almost a subtext to the story itself. Donoghue depicts San Francisco as a cultural melting point wrought with racial friction and intense discrimination. The world she describes is replete with poverty, underpaid Chinese workers and a lively prostitution industry. The characters in this text each play a central role in fleshing out this drama. Woven into this tapestry is a patriarchal domination which drives our protagonist to action.

While the novel is based upon real events through the character Jenny (something I didn’t know until I had finished reading it!), what really intrigued me was the protagonist, Blanche. From the outset, Blanche is depicted as a strong, forceful woman who is successful enough to own a building, charge rent to tenants and buy all she needs to live in the fashion to which she has become accustomed. She has built her small kingdom through dancing and prostitution which it seems she clearly enjoys – for a wide range of reasons. She lives with her beau and his sometimes ‘friend’, Ernest, both of whom seem to have no occupation apart from wasting Blanche’s hard earned wages.

The novel details Blanche’s journey toward self revelation. She comes to realize that she is, in fact, alone. That she has no true friends. Throughout the tale she is so self absorbed that by the time she realizes all of this it is too late and she struggles to alter the impact of her blindness to the suffering of others. The revelation hits her on page 292 – “the tears are spilling out of Blanche’s sockets; her head has turned to hot liquid and she’s moaning like some blinded calf. Crying … for Jenny’s life. For the short, lousy lives of all the children.”

I won’t spoilt the story by revealing much more. I will only say that what has stayed with me from this book is summed up in the following:

“Funny how universal that impulse is, to make your mark, even on water.”

Mark Haddon, The Red House

I‘ve been trying to work out what it is about Mark Haddon’s writing that so appeals to me. I can’t quite seem to put my finger on it. He has such a distinctive style that it is difficult to pinpoint the exact element which stands out as stellar.

Haddon tells a story through his characters and their inner thoughts. On one level, his writing seems disjointed, fractured, fragmented and at first, it was a challenge to sink into this book. But then something happens and suddenly you are committed to the story and the people and their lives and you need to know, you have to see the resolution, how they come together or are torn apart.

I’ve read a few of Haddon’s books now and they all seem to be an intimate portrait of family and the intricacies which make each one so unique. This book was no exception. I don’t think it is Haddon’s best work, but I am glad I read it for it made me think and reconsider how I relate to others, particularly those closest to me.