Bookses • June/July 2019

Here are six brief reviews of eight novels I’ve read over the past month and a half:

  • Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees

  • Takashi Hiraide, The Guest Cat

  • Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

  • Susan Hill, The Mist in the Mirror

  • Sarah Léon, Wanderer

  • Mary Renault, The Alexander Trilogy

 

Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees. 2015 coming of age novel about a lesbian in Nigeria.

Under the Udala Trees is a deeply moving novel that depicts the hardships and fleeting joys of a young Igbo lesbian, Ijeoma. It starts in the middle of the Biafran revolution in the late 60s with Ijeoma a child. Her father dies and she is shipped off to become a housekeeper in another town. While there, she meets a Hausa girl named Amina. All does not go well. Okparanta examines what being a lesbian in Nigeria really means from numerous angles, in particular from a traditionalist Christian perspective and from a societal perspective that insists on a productive, heterosexual family. My chest clenched many times while reading; it’s not easy, content-wise. But very, very good!

 

Takashi Hiraide, The Guest Cat, trans. Eric Selland. 2001 novel about a couple living in Tokyo in the late 1980s.

What a beautiful book this is! More a series of meditative vignettes than a novel, it is set in the late 1980s as the Showa period is ending. A writer and his wife, also a writer, live in a beautiful rented cottage. A neighbour’s cat visits them often; they name her Chibi; she lives her life, changing theirs. Hiraide uses this simple set up to write a loose series of short, quiet chapters generally about the nature of change. His expert use of detail illuminates each chapter. A lovely, touching book.

 

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 1962 weird novel about two sisters, hated by their community, who live in an old house.

A book of strange logic and atmosphere. Merricat Blackwood and her older sister Constance live with their uncle Julian in their old family mansion. Merricat is a vicious, feral child of 18 years; Constance is her indulgent, house-keeping guardian. The town hates them because their family was poisoned six years ago and no one was convicted of the crime. What’s odd is that the twist is easy to guess from the beginning of the novel, yet Jackson strings you along. She is a brilliant writer who inveigles you into investing in a plot that, looking back, is rather ridiculous. The plot, indeed, is not the point. Atmosphere is all.

 

Susan Hill, The Mist in the Mirror. 1992 ghost story about a man obsessed with a dead travel writer who might be evil.

To this point, Hill has written five book-length ghost stories. I have read four. The Mist in the Mirror is the second, both in sequence and in quality. (The Woman in Black is first in both categories.) All of them rely on a nostalgic Victorian setting, simple language, and spooky, evocative atmosphere — in other words, they’re perfect comfort food. This one tells the story of James Monmouth, whose parents died when he was young. His guardian took him abroad, telling him nothing of his past. He spends thirty years wandering the world, using as his guide the travel writings of Conrad Vane. Finally arriving back in England, Monmouth decides to research Vane. But…

 

Sarah Léon, Wanderer, trans. John Cullen. 2016 novel about a composer and pianist who have a history together.

A love song to Franz Schubert and German Romanticism! Hermin, a composer, is alone in his cottage in the Bourbonnais. It’s winter; no one would visit. Except Lenny, his one-time student who he hasn’t seen in ten years, arrives all of a sudden. Lenny had disappeared back then; why is he here now? This is a ridiculous novel by a 20 year old, absolutely delightful. Passion is set to maximum; neither man can directly express their deep feelings; you want to shake them both throughout. It reads as a modern reworking of German Romanticism (think Werther). Léon interweaves past and present with the present in normal font and the past in italics, which works very well. Léon also interweaves references to and quotations from classical music, particularly Schubert. (The novel’s title comes from the popular name of his beautiful Fantasy in C major for solo piano.) Her love — and her characters’ love — of music propels it to an appropriate ending. Very enjoyable!

 

Mary Renault, The Alexander Trilogy (Fire from Heaven, The Persian BoyFuneral Games). 1969, 1972, and 1981 historical novels about Alexander the Great’s youth, his exploits, and what happens to his empire after his death. 

A glorious sequence of historical novels! Fire from Heaven is written in third-person mostly focused through Alexander the Great. It covers the period from his infancy to the death of King Philip, his father. The Persian Boy is written in first-person from the perspective of Bagoas, eunuch and lover of Alexander. It covers Alexander’s conquests in Persia and Asia up to his death. Funeral Games is written in third-person from a plethora of perspectives as Alexander’s successors fight over his empire. (Funeral Games was Renault’s last novel; it might be her best and is certainly her most violent.) The characters pulsate with life, even if their personalities are somewhat flat. Alexander is a glorious, proud genius; Hephaistion is his solid, devoted companion; Bagoas is steadfastly in love with Alexander. The vivid recreation of ancient times, bold depiction of homosexual love, and propulsive action set their hooks deep in me.