The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

I like the work of Ian McEwan. I wouldn’t be happy to read two of his books in close succession, and fortunately no-one compels me to do so, so I always read his novels after waiting a sufficient time, when I feel that I’m ready again for the extraordinary experience his work usually provides me with. The Comfort of Strangers had also been sitting on my desk for a couple of months before I mustered the necessary courage which is needed for reading McEwan.

I know it’s not the size of a book that counts, however, in the beginning I was deceived and disappointed by the fact that The Comfort of Strangers only runs to 100 pages, so I was expecting a simple, perhaps rather shallow story without too much soul-dissection, one I would read in two hours and then forget about in a week. I was wrong. As soon as I started reading the novel, I realized that this is not a text that can or should be read quickly. McEwan demands the reader’s attention but he gives much pleasure in return, and he also proves that his short novel can contain as much drama, suspense, tragedy and gloomy poetry as any thousand-page book.

The novel tells the story of the English couple, Colin and Mary, who spend their holiday in an unnamed city (apparently it’s Venice). Their time passes monotonously until one evening, when, while walking through the city late at night looking for a place to eat, they bump into Robert, a rather aggressive, overwhelmingly cordial local man who invites the couple first to a smoky bar, and then next day to his own apartment. Here they meet Robert’s disabled wife, Caroline, who can hardly walk because of the constant pain in her back. The rest of the novel analyzes the special relationships which exist among these four people, but I would rather not say any more of the story, as every further detail might diminish the morbid, perverted delight offered by the book.

Because despite all its brutality and harshness, The Comfort of Strangers is a beautiful text. It’s written in such a stunning, poetic and seductive language that I often found myself reading a sentence three or four times before moving on, and I also turned back the pages several times to read through a particularly rich paragraph again. In this fascinating, cutting and detached language McEwan tells us quite a lot about the relationship of men and women, alienation, passion, desire and fear, and what he says here is never reassuring and often unsettling.

The atmosphere of the novel, suggested by the story and the language itself, is much enhanced by the city where the events take place. Although it is not stated explicitly, several signs imply that the story is set in Venice: we read about channels and bridges, the characters move about in boats and the cemetery island can also be vaguely seen on the horizon – and Venice is not the city of light, airy stories: just think of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion or Daphne Du Maurier’s story, Don’t Look Now. These stories came to my mind immediately when reading The Comfort of Strangers, and the comparisons didn’t make my heart any easier.

Apart from the style, the language and the setting, the title of the novel is also worth contemplating. I think it’s beautiful and very expressive. To be comfortable among strangers – it almost sounds like an oxymoron, and still: Colin and Mary feel at home in the strange city, in the company of Robert and Caroline, and this is the setting where they find the means of rekindling their rather cold relationship which is more of a friendship now than a love affair. The same holds true for Robert and Caroline who can gratify their passions and sexual desires under the strange gaze and presence of Colin and Mary.

On the whole, this is a stunning and rich novel which also made me reflect on myself and the world. And this is exactly what I expect from a book.


The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Scarlett Thomas was brought to my attention by a blogger acquaintance of mine, and I’m glad that she recommended her to me because after reading this novel it’s pretty obvious that Thomas is really an author I’m bound to love.

The End of Mr. Y belongs to the sub-genre of scholarly adventure books. The heroine of the novel, Ariel Manto is doing a PhD in the topic of thought experiments, she loves Derrida and Heidegger, and she’s especially interested in the works of an obscure 19th century writer, Thomas E. Lumas. Lumas’s books are virtually impossible to acquire now, however, one day Ariel comes across his most mysterious novel, The End of Mr. Y – which is, as legend has it, a haunted book and anyone who reads it will be cursed.

Lumas’s book is the (perhaps real, perhaps fictitious) story of a man who, after drinking some magic potion, is able to enter a strange virtual world, the Troposphere, where he can freely jump into people’s minds and learn their thoughts and memories – seemingly without any adverse consequences whatsoever.

Ariel is enchanted by this story and she quickly resolves to visit the Troposphere, no matter what. As it is, this journey isn’t that easy to organize, and it is not without its dangers, either.

So far I have only read one similar scholarly adventure novel, Possession by A. S. Byatt, and despite all the beauty, the lovely structure and all the postmodern, scholarly arguments I love so much, I didn’t really like the fact that Byatt’s novel contains way too much primary texts (diaries, letters, poems) on which the protagonists’ literary detective work is based. The abundance of primary material entails that the characters of the outer narrative are pushed into the background, which is a pity, because I was much more interested in them than in the „real” protagonists of the novel.

I was afraid that Scarlett Thomas would do something similar in this book. I liked Ariel from the very first page, I was interested in her way of thinking, and I wanted to know what would befall her, so I would have regretted if after sketching the „real” world, the author’s attention had turned to the fictive world within. Fortunately this is not what happened. Even though towards the beginning of the novel we can read a couple of excerpts from Lumas’s book, these are mostly there for the purpose of providing the reader with some information about the obsession of Mr. Y (which Ariel will mirror soon enough) and about the way the Troposphere works. Ariel, however, remains the real protagonist throughout, and the book is about her immensely exciting (mostly intellectual) adventures.

By the way, despite the fact that in this novel Ariel is the typical out-of-this-world academical type (it seems that in this genre a literary scholar must be absolutely penniless and must live in a cockroach or mouse-infested/damp/moldy/windy flat – and Ariel lives up to these expectations marvelously), it quickly transpires that in fact everyone in this book is an academical person, even those characters who are not scholars by profession, and everyone spends their time discussing theoretical questions and problems (such as the origins of the universe, time travel, relativity, causality, Derrida, deconstruction, the connection between language and thought, metaphors, belief, phenomenology and others) all day long.

However, the novel is not a boring philosophical or linguistic treatise trickily disguised in the form of an adventure novel. The issues the characters talk about have a very concrete significance for them, in fact, the topics they discuss are often matters of life and death for them. For instance, the Troposphere, which has a central significance in the characters’ lives and which is often more real and definitely more intriguing than reality, is made up of language (thoughts), and the metaphoric expressions assume a literal meaning in this world: e.g. “trains of thought” really appear as trains in this world. Or I could also mention Ariel’s neighbor, Wolfgang, for whom it is vitally important to describe reality with language as accurately as possible, and he can engage in long arguments with Ariel because he’s not willing to believe that the English language contains no separate word for the kind of lawnmower on which people sit, instead of pushing around.

And since the issues they deal with are truly important for the characters, and since they passionately love to think, argue and explain, no argument or discussion ever becomes boring for the reader. I think that any speculation or argument presented with sufficient enthusiasm and devotion can be absolutely absorbing, no matter how uninteresting the topic might be. However, in this novel fascinating topics are discussed enthusiastically by likeable and interesting characters, so the effect is twice as absorbing.

The Pillars of the Earth

I first came across this novel when I was a highschool student. I recall that one of my classmates was in the habit of carrying this book around and reading bits of it during recesses. I was an avid reader even back then, but still, I was overawed by the fact that someone could actually bring huge, 1000-page long novels to school. I always had something to read in my bag, but I usually brought shorter, more convenient novels to school, and I found even the look of The Pillars of the Earth impressive and somewhat intimidating.

Then a couple of years back, when the new Hungarian edition was published, there were huge stacks of the novel displayed in every single bookstore, but I was not tempted to read the novel at that time either. But one day I came across an English-language copy of the novel relatively cheaply, and suddenly I thought I might as well buy and read it.

I admit I was a bit afraid of starting to read it, as a 1000-page novel can easily mean two weeks of commitment for me and I do not like to spend that much time with a bad novel. I know it may sound stupid, but I finish almost every book I start reading, and even if it is a trashy novel, I keep hoping until the very last page that something will come up and change my opinion. Anyway, The Pillars of the Earth turned out to be quite a good read and I did not need to regret my jump into the novel. On the contrary, I could hardly wait to get home everyday, get done with my usual evening routines and continue reading, and I truly enjoyed the novel almost until the end.

I do not wish to dwell into the story (you may check Wikipedia for a detailed plot summary), so I only mention that the novel is set in 12th century England, with the story encompassing around 40 years and centering around the building of the monumental Kingsbridge cathedral. The difficulties of the building project and the mystery surrounding the hanging of the father of one of the central characters, an innocent French jongleur, Jack Shareburg, provide the outer structure for the novel, and within this structure we find a long tale full of love, wars, tragedies and various other twists and turns.

Follett employs a huge number of characters, and the story runs in several parallel lines. Still, I did not have any problems with following the events, and I was constantly entertained by the tangled relations of the characters. Needless to say, the novel makes use of a lot of good old clichés and conventional plot development methods: it is easy to guess that the villain will try a new trick to destroy the good guys in every 200 pages, and that there will be a detailed sex/torture/massacre scene in every 150 pages. And of course Follett makes sure that each bigger unit of the novel focuses on different characters and storylines, thus making the reader feel a constant urge to read just one more chapter to learn what happens to whom in the following chapter.

By the way, I did not find the characters any special (mostly because they are stock black-or-white characters with no ambiguity or personality development) and did not really care for them emotionally – apart from a single character, Jack Jackson. Still, something kept me interested in everyone’s fate and I never once considered laying the book aside because of boredom.

However, the last 150-200 pages proved somewhat dissatisfactory. It is not that the end of the novel was uninteresting, I only felt as if Follett had lost some of his earlier zest and had taken up repeating himself with the last couple of twists. For me, there was one too many rape, one too many fight, one too many sex scene in the novel. And even though the cathedral is finally built after all the difficulties, accidents and intrigues, the great moment of completion does not feel that great, that cathartic after all.

I felt the same lack of catharsis in the denouement of the other structural plot element, the story of Jack Jackson’s father, the jongleur who was hanged in the prologue of the novel. Even though the jongleur’s story surfaces in the novel from time to time, keeping the reader guessing as to its true significance, and even though Jack Jackson keeps trying to piece together the truth from the many fragments of the story he learns from various sources, the revelations at the end of the novel are simply not revelatory enough. After learning the truth, even Jack seems to think so, and contemplates that as the whole affair happened forty years earlier when he was not even born, it is not something worth crying over anymore.

Even though I mentioned several bad points in this review without elaborating on the good ones, I hasten to add that I find this to be a truly exciting, entertaining, easy-to-get-lost-in novel. This is a novel that can easily make you spend your workday dreaming about the hour when you can finally sit down to it again. Only do not expect high literature and do not start counting the faults of the novel – just enjoy being entertained.

The Cider House Rules by John Irving

I first read this novel in the summer of 2004. I was holding down a summer job then, and I read the majority of the book on the bus while commuting to my workplace. I didn’t mind reading the novel in small installments, because I loved the story so much that I wanted it to last forever, and I deliberately withheld myself from reading it too quickly. This haven’t happened too often in my now more than 20 years of reading practice: if I fall in love with a book, I can very rarely slow myself down and usually I don’t really want to, either. Anyway, since that beautiful summer I’ve always remembered The Cider House Rules fondly. I remember that it was a very good novel to read and get lost in, and it left a certain elusive sense of happiness in me which I’ve wanted to re-live right from the moment I finished to book for the first time.

I finally revisited the novel in 2010, and being then six years older, a bit more widely read and a lot less naive, the book proved to be a very different experience, and I’m very happy that I first read it when I was younger. I still consider this to be a good novel, and I still enjoyed reading it, but if it hadn’t been for my earlier memories I probably wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about it now and would only say that it’s certainly a good read but otherwise nothing really special. I have this feeling because compared to my current reading list and the books I tend to enjoy nowadays, this book is hopelessly old-fashioned. In recent years, I’ve got to love novels full of intriguing narrative or stylistic techniques, lovely mixtures of fiction and reality, playful tricks with narrative past and present, language games and all kinds of postmodern twists.

But The Cider House Rules contains no such intriguing tricks and games. This novel tells a story, in a relatively linear fashion. The story has its heroes and heroines (and not just nicely analyzable „characters”) who engage in different kinds of relations with one another, who commit good and bad deeds and who, in the meantime, have to come to terms with their conscience and have to make heavy moral choices. And while following their course, the reader can also make their own decisions and can even draw their own conclusions if they want to.

Now, after all this rambling about myself, a couple of words about the story: it starts in the 1920s, in Saint Cloud’s, Maine, where a liberal-minded doctor, Wilbur Larch founds a strange institution which is a mixture of an abortion clinic, a maternity hospital and an orphanage. This is the place where our hero, Homer Wells is born. Homer in time becomes the favorite orphan, the student and the proposed successor of Wilbur Larch, but the boy is disturbed by the fact that in the orphanage he’s never had the chance to make his own decisions, therefore he leaves his home when he grows up, and tries his luck in the wide world, more precisely in an apple orchard where he has ample opportunities to make all those decisions he couldn’t make in the orphanage.

Though I already suggested what this novel is not (it’s not postmodern, it’s not a play with language, and it’s not an elaborate literary game), I really don’t want to characterize this novel only with negative sentences because there’s certainly a lot to praise in The Cider House Rules. Perhaps the most important of its praise-worthy characteristics is the fact that this is an exceedingly thoughtful and beautifully structured novel which deals with several moral and social questions and dilemmas without spoonfeeding the reader with the „proper” answers and solutions.

Besides the perhaps most important topic of the novel, abortion, issues of homosexuality, free will and racial differences are also covered in the book. All these issues are presented from several points of view and we learn about them through the lives of several characters, so this way the author manages to avoid indoctrinating the reader with his very own thoughts on these subjects. And what’s even better is that all these topics are present both in theory and in practice, and it’s demonstrated in a very convincing fashion that it can easily happen that someone objects to something in theory but when it comes to real life, they still do what they’ve always been opposed to.

By the way, the characters of the novel are often forced to reassess their earlier thoughts, deeds and values and to go off the track they consider ideal (though of course sometimes they do this without any force whatsoever), and this makes them very human, palpable and vulnerable. It’s easy to feel for them, it’s easy to accept even their worst choices, and it’s easy to forgive their lies and deceptions, because despite all these the heroes are very likeable figures, and the fact that they are not perfect makes them even more authentic.

I sometimes felt while reading the novel as if John Irving had intended to write a modern epic – only with imperfect, human-scale heroes. For instance, it’s interesting to note that Irving usually characterizes his heroes with a single habit, a single physical feature or their typical word usage: Wilbur Larch keeps on sniffing ether like a maniac throughout the story; a minor female character is only characterized by her fat arms; and Homer Wells says virtually nothing in the novel expect for continuously saying „of course” with which he drives several other characters mad.

Heroism and imperfection; theory and how it can be put into practice; the decisions made by the heroes and the implications of their decisions – all these are exquisitely mixed in the novel, and despite the fact that the book is quite bulky, the story never for a minute becomes boring. For me it was a bit strange but definitely a good feeling to read such a novel again: a novel which stands on its own, which is a complete world in itself and in which I could really get lost in without the necessity to be aware of the outside world or other books. While re-reading The Cider House Rules, I sometimes felt like a teenage, relatively inexperienced reader, and for some fleeting seconds I could even relive the beautiful sensation of naive reading. And this single fact definitely made it worth while for me to re-read this novel.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I have a strange attitude towards bestsellers. I read a lot of praise about them, hear some bits and pieces of the story, and finally come across a sentence or a shred of someone’s review which manages to break through the wall of my snobbishness and disinterestedness, and suddenly I become eager to read the book in question. In connection with The Time Traveler’s Wife, this moment came some time last spring, but I do not remember what exactly kindled my interest. Then a few months later one of my good acquaintances mentioned Niffenegger’s name and the word “postmodern” in the same sentence and from that point on I wanted to read the novel as soon as possible.

Judging from the reviews and blog posts I had previously read about the novel, I presumed that The Time Traveler would be a somewhat mystical, somewhat hard to follow, wonderful but not slimy love story in which the characters use a lot of bad language. However, the book turned out to be rather different: it was not mystical, it was not somewhat but sometimes extremely hard to follow, it was not slimy but it was not wonderful either, and the characters did not use too much bad language for my taste.

One of the great advantages of reading bestsellers is that by the time I read them and post about them, several highly interesting reviews and posts are already all around the internet, so I do not have to bother with writing a story outline. So this time, I will only write about what I found good in the novel, and what I found bad.

Niffenegger’s novel made an unexpectedly good impression on me in the beginning. The preface of the novel in which first Clare then Henry provide the reader with a short insight into their lives spent with continuous waiting, time traveling and aching with desire was simply perfect. The first couple of pages manage to convey a sense of all the suffering, difficulty, joy, helplessness, hope and bitterness which describe the relationship of Henry and Clare, and the combination of all these was sufficiently interesting for me to develop an active interest in the characters and their story.

However, after the promising start I quickly lost my grip on the story. Henry’s time travels, his disappearances, his meetings with his younger and older selves, and the fact that Henrys from different parts of the future kept appearing in Clare’s childhood – these were too much for my logical abilities to tackle. Or perhaps these elements puzzled me because I like to analyze and explain everything, and this is clearly impossible in this novel.

After reading some more I began to feel that possibly the whole storyline of time traveling and combining past and future has a symbolic meaning that does not necessarily have to be meant rationally, and from this point on I started to enjoy the book yet again. I think if we put aside the science fiction layer of the story, we can get an insight into the lives of two rather interesting characters and their truly unusual relationship. Despite its unusual and destined quality, this is an honest, real, subversive, self-destructive and ruthless relationship, and the time travels of Henry and the defenselessness and insecurity they entail signify both Clare’s desire to be alone and Henry’s attempts to escape from their relationship.

As it can be inferred from the title of the novel, the protagonist of the novel is not Henry and Clare, but Clare only. It is really tricky from the author that even though it seems as if Clare was the suffering party in the relationship whose life is basically spent with sitting around waiting for his involuntarily treacherous Henry, in reality everything happens according to Clare’s plans: as a child she decides that she will secure the man of her dreams for herself and she does secure him; when she wants a child, albeit with much difficulty, she manages to give birth to one; and when she wants to be alone, she only has to wait a little and one of Henry’s time travels will provide her with the chance to indulge herself. This is more or less explicitly written out in a short chapter titled Secret, in which Clare tells the reader what she does when Henry is away and how much she enjoys occasionally being alone. I have never read in any romantic love story such a description of the way how the parties in a relationship (or one party at least) sometimes wish to be alone, even if it means that the other person will quite probably have a very bad time during the period spent apart – just as Henry has quite unpleasant and sometimes even life-threatening experiences during his time travels. This is simply something a love-story usually does not dwell upon, so I had to conclude that The Time Traveler’s Wife is not a simple romantic story.

True, there are several romantic and erotic scenes in the novel, but despite these, and despite the whole time traveling mystique, I judge this novel to be fairly realistic, where the everyday struggles of life (such as how to share the housework) are just as emphatically present as the way Henry and Clare make romantic love to each other.

And now some words about the things I did not like or that disappointed me: first of all, for me the narrative was a bit hard to follow. The story is told by Clare and Henry in turns and at the beginning of every chapter the narrator is named. However, I got confused quite often as to who is doing the speaking and I had to turn back to the beginning of the chapter to find it out. It was not easy to tell Henry and Clare apart as neither of them had a unique voice which would have made it possible for me to know at once who the current narrator is.

Another thing which irritated me a bit was that I often felt that the novel promised more than it managed to deliver. This is especially so in the stories of the minor characters. There is a whole bunch of potentially highly interesting characters in the novel, but finally none of them is explored in any depth. For instance, I would have liked to read more about the anarchist Gomez, Clare’s psychotic mother, Henry’s ex-girlfriend Ingrid or Henry’s father but all of them were dwarfed by Henry and Clare. Of course one of the reasons for this might be that the novel is already quite long as it is. However, if Niffenegger had wanted to concentrate on her protagonists only, then perhaps she should not have introduced so many other characters.

Apart from all these, I liked this novel on the whole, and it also made me realize that it is not necessary for a bestseller to be as crappy as The Shadow of the Wind which I read not long ago and hated immensely. I can quite easily imagine that I will read Niffenegger’s other books as well to see what else she can offer.

A Heart So White by Javier Marías

Once I read some praise for this novel, and I also liked its title very much, so I’m sure I would have read it sooner or later. Then a couple of months ago I came across another blog post about this novel in which the blogger mentioned that A Heart So White is full of eight-line sentences and highly irritating parenthetical interjections. Well, you may or may not have noticed, but I am prone to write eight-line long sentences and parenthetical interjections myself, so I thought that these irritating features might in fact prove quite enjoyable to me. Therefore I asked my sister to borrow this book for me from the library, as I felt a great urge to find out about Marías’s long sentences as soon as possible.

The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Juan, a recently married thirtyish translator, and A Heart So White is basically a long series of his musings, his reflections on the past and his attempts to explain the world to himself. The center of the virtually non-existent story is that after his own wedding, Juan becomes interested in the story of his father’s three marriages, and even though he is not sure he really wants to know what kind of secrets are concealed in his father’s past, his curiosity gets the better of him and he cannot hide from the unpleasant and perhaps even dangerous truth.

As it usually happens in this kind of soul-searching, past-revealing novels, by the end of the story we learn the long-concealed secret of Juan’s father. But as it is, the secret itself is not that very important, and what mattered forty years ago doesn’t really matter now. The secret only serves as a convenient referential point which makes it possible for the narrator to muse (under the pretext that he is working hard to reveal the big secret) about as diverse topics as the changes that occur in the relationship of a couple after they get married; the need to understand everything and the impossibility of not understanding and not knowing; the way hearing and knowing something relates to guilt and innocence; the recurring events and the chance coincidences which abound in everyone’s life; the role language plays in our understanding and deception of the other person; or the way something becomes a secret.

These topics are simply wonderful by themselves, and the way Marías covers them in the novel makes them even more so. I was both fascinated and entertained by the constant digressions of the narrator (everything reminds Juan of something else, so it can easily happen that one character asks a question, and we only get the answer after a two-page long interjection or a description of something that’s just come to the narrator’s mind upon hearing the question), and I admired his efforts to understand and explain everything perfectly (it’s easy to see that he writes so many complicated sentences and parenthetical interjections because every explanation can be refined further, and this constant refinement is exactly what the narrator is after).

The narrator can talk interestingly about anything, but still, I enjoyed his ruminations about the nature of language, understanding and deception the most. This also happens to be one of the most important topics for the narrator, which may come as no surprise, given that he works as an interpreter, therefore it is his job to pay attention to language, voices, choices of words, shades of meaning – no matter whom he is talking or listening to. On the one hand, his job makes his life more difficult, as he is accustomed to listening to and interpreting everything so he cannot let go even in his free time, and if he hears anyone speaking in a language he understands he cannot help but listen and interpret. So Juan sometimes suffers from his need to understand everything, on the other hand, however, he is well aware of the power his ability to understand and translate words endows him with – and he doesn’t hesitate to use this power either.

My favorite example for this is the story of Juan’s first meeting with his wife, Luisa. Luisa works as an interpreter as well, and once she is present as an observer at a meeting of a Spanish and an English politician where Juan interprets. Seized by a sudden impulse (and risking his job), Juan decides that he spices up the boring meeting, so he deliberately mistranslates some sentences in order to steer the conversation to a more personal and exciting direction. And even though it would be Luisa’s task to interrupt Juan at this point, she decides to overlook Juan’s deliberate mistakes. This way the two of them become accomplices in the deception and decide to use their linguistic abilities to influence and deceive others, and in a way change the world according to their whims.

This was only a single example, and the novel abounds in such beautiful episodes. But as I already implied, A Heart So White is just as fascinating when nothing happens, thanks to the structure and language Marías uses: sentences and even whole paragraphs keep recurring in the novel, and all the repetitions (not only of words, but symbols, metaphors, and human interactions and relations) have quite a hypnotic and bewitching effect in the end.

Of course you don’t necessarily have to agree with the narrator’s philosophy – but it’s for sure that you will find it hard to ignore the sheer beauty and pervasive force of his trains of thought.

Priority by Iselin C. Hermann

Priority is an epistolary novel. The story is really simple: Delphine, a young Danish woman sees a painting in a gallery in Paris, and she is so impressed with it that she sends a sincere, slightly frivolous thank-you note to the painter. The middle-aged painter, Jean Luc answers her card, and then they engage in an increasingly exalted, erotic and hysterical correspondence. From the initial playful, rather innocent and flirtatious stage they quickly go on to the phase when they both become obsessed with each other’s body and soul – as they imagine these based on their letters to each other. Naturally, the idea of a real-life rendezvous is raised pretty soon, but the meeting, when it is finally arranged, has disastrous consequences.

Several bloggers who read this novel mentioned that the story ends with an appalling and very dramatic twist which leaves the reader absolutely dumbfounded. However, I was not at all surprised by the outcome of the story. This is not because I’m so clever (virtually every writer can double-cross me, and I’ve never been able to guess who the murderer is in any detective story), but because the ending is foreshadowed by several details in the novel: the comment under the title of the novel („The letters are published by X. Y.”), the style and the rhapsodical quality of the whole correspondence, and several hints dropped by one pen-friend and deliberately or perhaps naively ignored by the other – all these details strongly suggest what kind of outcome is to be expected. And in fact this is one of the reasons why I esteem this novel so highly: the author didn’t use the cheap trick of shocking the reader with some inexplicable but spectacular twist. She simply went ahead and wrote the ending which was the inevitable consequence of the preceding events.

Of course, the novel is still shocking, but it doesn’t shock me because of the ending, but because the whole correspondence is frightfully believable. The way Delphine’s and Jean Luc’s relationship develops, their increasing intimacy with each other, the gaps and silences which sometimes occur in the course of their correspondence, which are then broken by obsessively honest letters about their past and about their erotic fantasies about the other, or by self-lacerating, self-ironic or exigent epistles – all this is stunningly real.

Priority, by the way, reminded me of Joanne Harris’s novel, blueeyedboy, even though here communication is via letters and not via blog comments and emails. Both of these novels deal with the themes of role-playing, the blurring of reality and desire, and the incomprehensibility of someone’s real identity – and in this respect it doesn’t matter at all whether someone falls in love with a perfect stranger based on his or her letters, blog comments or instant messages. In these kinds of relationships, which are based on desires and fantasies, lying (or at least hiding certain facts), painting a nice picture of ourselves and at the same time mindlessly adoring the Other are even more emphatically present than in any „normal” relationship. And this is certainly the case in Priority, too. Delphine and Jean Luc develop a passionate, seemingly honest relationship which is in fact based on role-playing and is therefore exceedingly vulnerable to the attack of reality. And even though both of them are basically the figments of the other’s imagination, the image they create in their heads about the other is so real for them that reality itself becomes unimaginable and unbelievable.

While reading the novel, I first tended to think that in this relationship, Delphine is the one who really suffers, because she is the one who truly exposes herself, she is the one whose desire is stronger, and she is the one who adores the other more honestly. But finally the question of who suffers and who loses more became totally irrelevant, because, as a matter of fact, there are only losers in this relationship.

Hotel World by Ali Smith

I read about this book on one of my favourite blogs and I immediately felt that this was a novel I must read. After a couple of months I did get around to reading it, and Hotel World turned out to be exactly as wonderful and heartbreaking as I expected.

The events and characters of the novel are centered around the Globe Hotel, and even though the characters, with the exception of two sisters, don’t know one another, for one night they get close to one another. In the first part of the novel we learn that 19-year-old Sara Wilby had a fatal accident in the hotel earlier that year, but her ghost is still haunting the premises, although not for long, as she happens to be spending her last night on earth. During this night, the other characters of the novel (Sara’s grieving sister, the receptionist of the hotel, a journalist spending the night in the hotel, and the homeless woman who can usually be seen begging near the hotel entrance) all strike up a fleeting acquaintance with the others, but the events of the night will mean something different for all of them. For someone it will mean the end of their life and past; for someone it will signify the beginning of the future; and for someone it will start as any other night on the road, spent with work, then something interesting will happen, but finally everything will revert back to normal. What is common in the experiences of the different characters is that during the night, each of them will have to face death, grief, the passage of time and the all-permeating sense of their alienation from the whole world.

The story itself is hardly worth mentioning, though, as the basic plot functions mostly as a starting point for a long series of memories and dreams. Ali Smith shows only a little of everything, and leaves the rest to our imagination. As regards the setting of the novel, for example, we learn that the story takes place in an unspecified, relatively small town somewhere in the North, and we see some typical streets as well, but finally it remains impossible to pin down the exact location.

And Smith proceeds in the same way with the characters: we learn a couple of crucial details about everyone’s life (for instance, we can read some of the traumatic details of the past of the homeless woman, Elsa; and we get a glimpse of the budding love affair of Sara which could never be fulfilled) which is enough for us to start to care for them, but then, as we don’t get any further details about their lives, we are forced to rely on our imagination and fill in the gaps in their stories on our own. And I think it’s very good that we get only a little of everything in this novel, as that little is already dark and sorrowful enough.

As regards the structure of the novel, each part is narrated by a different narrator, and each narrator has a unique language usage, each puts the emphasis on different events, or views the same events from a strikingly new perspective. Yes, these are exactly the kind of typical postmodern games I love and can enthuse about for hours, and indeed, some elements of the novel can be labeled postmodern: its non-linear structure, the way the chapters and the characters are interconnected, and the creative language use and punctuation which characterizes certain chapters are postmodern traits.

But now it was not simply the clever use of such techniques which truly fascinated me, but the way Ali Smith uses these to express very dramatic, very human experiences, and the way she captures pain, grief and the passage of time by the gradual loss of power over words. For instance, it’s a recurring problem for Sara’s ghost that more and more words slip her mind as time passes, and the more words she loses, the more she feels separated from her old, earthly life. For Else, a similar loss of words occurs: during the period of her physical and mental deterioration she has already forgotten some words, and she is prone to omitting the vowels when she speaks. And Sara’s sister, Clare has a similar problem as well – she is unable to control her pain and the flow of her words, and in the chapter she narrates there’s no punctuation other than an occasional ampersand

All this may sound a bit strained, but believe me, it’s not. The unique language sounds natural from all the characters, and it expresses deep and painful emotions and memories in a highly poetic, beautiful, yet absolutely authentic and un-melodramatic way. However, the final effect of the novel is not like that of a mellow, sad elegy. This novel is more like a sly poison slowly taking effect in your bloodstream, and it’s only towards the end that you realize that everything is hurting and your heart is breaking for every character.

A kind of lyrical punch in the stomach.