How the Light Gets In by M. J. Hyland

I was wandering around aimlessly in one of my favorite bookstores when I came across this novel. I had never heard about it before, but I loved its title and cover from the very first moment. I checked what the novel was about and read the selections from the favorable reviews on the back cover. Of course, according to these quotes, every single novel is masterful, exciting, heartbreaking, unsettling, beautifully written, irresistible, breathtaking or any arbitrary combination of these, and sometimes I’m still naive enough to believe what is written on the cover. However, I didn’t buy the book on the spot, but decided to keep it in my mind and buy it later. But then I kept thinking about it continuously, so a couple of days later I went back to the shop and bought it.

It’s always a great pleasure for me to read a book I know absolutely nothing about, and which hasn’t been read by any of my friends or acquaintances either. I always feel that these books aren’t yet „spoiled” by any previous opinions and prejudices, neither my own, nor those of others – so they still carry the inherent possibility to become one of those books that change my life. No wonder then that I started to read How the Light Gets In with great curiosity and excitement, and as it happened, I only needed to get as far as the second page to know for sure that this was indeed a book I was going to love – and one that I’m bound to re-read a hundred times later.

You may guess from the previous paragraphs that this isn’t going to be one of my most objective and analytical posts. However, I don’t want to fill this post only with my incoherent ramblings, so let me first tell you what this novel is about.

(By the way, I’m not sure about the origins of the title, but I searched the web and found that Leonard Cohen’s song „Anthem” contains the following lines: „There is a crack in everything // That’s how the light gets is”. It may just be possible that Hyland refers to this song in the title.)

How the Light Gets In tells the story of sixteen-year-old Lou, a girl with an exceptionally high IQ from Sydney, Australia. She lives with a family of misfits who mainly live on the dole. Naturally, Lou wants out, so when she gets a chance to spend a year in the US as an exchange student, she grabs the opportunity immediately. She considers this year as her big (or only) chance to change her life and herself as well. Arriving in the US, she is greeted by her host family, the lovely, healthy and well-off Hardings who try to make sure that the unlovely, uncouth, sulky, insomniac Lou finds her place in their Perfect American Life as soon as possible.

Of course this is not too easy for a girl like Lou, and she gets entangled in every kind of difficulty imaginable in a life of a sixteen-year-old girl: she smokes, drinks, does drugs, goes out with the wrong guys, doesn’t go home in time, steals and lies – and after a while it seems obvious that her dreams about a new life may never come true.

Have I read a lot of books about such things? Of course I have. What is so good about this novel then? Simply everything. For me How the Light Gets In is virtually perfect in terms of themes, quality of writing and style. The novel deals with such diverse topics as, for instance, the unattainability of the American Dream; the impossibility (or extreme difficulty) of fitting in; the identity crisis of teenagers; and teenage loves, desires and sexual relations – and miraculously, Hyland manages to fit all these topics into her novel, without making it overburdened or didactic.

And Lou tells her story in exactly that clever, sarcastic, hostile style which can be expected from a sixteen-year-old, intelligent, naive, unhappy, insecure girl. In the whole novel I only felt once, during one of Lou’s ruminations about alcoholism, that the words don’t sound authentic from the mouth of a teenage girl, and for a second I was afraid that the novel might suddenly turn into a didactic self-help book, but to my immense relief, this didn’t happen.

One of reviews quoted in the book claims that Lou Connor is a female equivalent of Holden Caulfield. I think that comparing this novel to The Catcher in the Rye is both inevitable and correct. As The Catcher in the Rye is such a classic, it only seems natural that it’s mentioned in connection with every new novel dealing with teenage angst. And in the case of How the Light Gets In the comparison indeed seems apt: Lou’s behavior, her desire to be loved, her critical view of the world, her penchant for hasty judgment and sometimes even her vocabulary reminded me of Holden. And apart from Lou herself, there are several episodes and motifs in the novel which seem to be references to Salinger’s novel. For instance, Lou’s relationship with the Russian exchange student Lishny bears strong reminiscences to the relations between Holden and Jane Gallagher in The Catcher in the Rye. (By the way, „Lishny” seemed such a strange name to me that I felt compelled to dig up its meaning. Actually, the word means „superfluous”, „futile”. But as Hyland herself doesn’t explain about the word in the novel, I don’t want to analyze the possible implications of this name either. )

I read it more than once that one should read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, as it’s impossible to grasp its atmosphere and meaning if you first read it as an adult. Actually, I was around 16 when I first read The Catcher in the Rye, and re-read it many times since then, and it always proved a compelling, cathartic book for me. Still, I don’t know how I would have reacted to it if I had first read it as an adult. As I mentioned, How the Light Gets In indeed resembles The Catcher in the Rye in many respects, just as Lou resembles Holden. If we examine Lou’s character more closely, she is nothing more than a not too amiable, whining teenager who would like to change the world and herself in it – but we may surmise that she will soon grow up, learn how things really are, and be forced to conform to the norms of society.

So I might as well feel that Lou is only a pretty irritating teenager, and I have nothing to do with her, as I’m way past her age and her petty problems. But as it happens, I can very much feel for Lou, I can understand her struggles, and my heart nearly breaks whenever I see how she steps one step closer to ruining her life completely.

There are two possibilities here. It might be that deep down I’m still a teenager, this is why I can understand Lou’s story so much. Or it might be that this an excellent novel about a sixteen-year-old which is not only meant to be read by other sixteen-year-olds. And I believe this second possibility is the case here.

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Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

(The post may contain spoilers.)

I’ve already read two other novels by Dennis Lehane and I’ve grown to like him. However, I liked both Shutter Island and Sacred in a negative kind of way: I didn’t like them because they were exceptional books, or because they completely renewed their genre or because they made me feel something I’d never felt before. No. I simply liked them because they were decently written books, with a good story, with interesting, very human characters and with witty conversation. (Of course these are just the basics in a novel – or rather, these should be the basics in a novel – but for some reason a book featuring all the above-mentioned elements is relatively hard to come by.) So what I most liked in these novels was that there was nothing in them I could criticize – they were good in their way, without being outstanding, and even though this may sound rather condescending, I do think this meagre praise is definitely something.

However, I liked Mystic River not because it’s not bad at all, but because it’s an excellent novel. The three protagonists of the novel used the friends in their childhood. They fooled around together all the time, until one day something happened: one of the boys, the loser of their bunch, Dave hopped into the car of the men who at first sight looked just like policemen, and when he finally escaped from the in-fact-not-policemen after four days and went home, suddenly nothing was the same as it used to be. Due to his experiences, Dave developed something very much like a split personality; his friend, Jimmy – a silent, moody, nonchalant but very emotional boy – felt sadness settling on his heart; and the third boy, Sean slowly drifted away from the old bunch, as he was always a good boy, he lived in a better neighborhood and had a more normal family than the others – so he probably couldn’t have been the friend of the other two boys for long, anyway.

Twenty-five years later Dave is still an average loser; Jimmy, an ex-criminal and now the owner of a shop lives happily with his family; and Sean works as a detective while suffering constantly because his pregnant wife had left him a year before. Of course the childhood friendship of these three men ended long ago (although Jimmy and Dave are related through their wives), but the brutal murder of Jimmy’s daughter, Katie brings them together again, because Sean is the detective investigating the case, and it seems that Dave might have committed something terrible on the night of the murder.

So, Mystic River is supposedly a crime novel. It certainly features a murder, a murderer, and a couple of typical doughnut-munching, coffee-gulping, alcoholic and/or workaholic cops who have no private life whatsoever, who like to fire witticisms at everybody and who are so extremely tough that when they see a half-rotten corpse in the trunk of a car, they go ahead and jokingly ask their colleague whether he would care for a sandwich.

However, as regards the typical elements (clichés) of a crime novel, Dennis Lehane stops right here, and the majority of the novel consists of a thorough analysis of the characters’ inner lives and feelings. And Lehane does this remarkably well – in a heartrendingly emotional, yet totally understated, quiet way. The way Dave fights his demons; his wife’s, Celeste’s dilemma whether she should stand by her husband or betray him; Sean’s helpless rage and the hopeless emptiness in his life left by her wife’s departure; the grief Jimmy feels after the death of his daughter; the perhaps exaggerated („I will never love anyone this much again”) but definitely serious heartache suffered by Katie’s boyfriend Brendan – all these are depicted in such a way that I was very close to shedding tears at several points in the novel.

Besides the constant analysis of the characters’ inner torments, the main theme of the novel is the question how a person’s life becomes what it is. Are there any moments in a life after which things inevitably change? And how is it possible to live with the idea that the smallest decision might change the course of a life forever? Put this way, these questions may sound like the questions in some cheap, pop-psychological, mystical novel just like the ones of Paulo Coelho. But Dennis Lehane is no Coelho, and his characters don’t act as if they were hugely talented geniuses in the fields on psychology and philosophy who can redeem themselves, the others or the whole world in a simple way – so Mystic River treats these questions with taste and delicacy.

By the way, it’s an interesting question who had the worst life of the three men. Judging objectively, Dave seems to be the most pitiable of the three, because he was robbed of his chance to grow up to be a healthy, mentally stable man at a very early age. However, it was Jimmy I pitied the most: his quiet, sad, deeply emotional personality and his wildness make for a very strange mixture, and his suppressed, almost unbearable and inexpressible pain is very painful to witness even from the outside.

It’s strange that by eliminating Dave at the end of the novel, it seems that order is finally restored to the two men’s life (of course I ignore the fact that order is not restored to the life of Celeste – but this novel is more about the three men than about anybody else): Sean’s wife comes home, and Jimmy finally becomes strong enough to start to deal with his grief in some way.

Is this a happy end? We get rid of the poor, psychologically damaged loser with a life screwed up mainly by others, and then everybody is happy? I wouldn’t say so, since it’s only too obvious that both Sean and Jimmy paid a huge price for this order and perhaps-happiness. And I’ve got a notion that probably both of them will keep thinking a lot about the day Dave hopped into that ominous car – and the different lives they might have had, had Dave not done so.

The End of the Road by John Barth

When I was at university, this book was one of the cult novels in my circle of friends. We read, reread and discussed it constantly, we analyzed its humour and philosophy all the time and the first sentence („In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.”) became a saying we quoted to each other on a daily basis. And though I’m not at university anymore, The End of the Road is still one of those novels I can reread and enjoy anywhere, anytime.

The anti-hero of the novel is the afore-mentioned Jacob Horner who periodically suffers from a strange psychiatric condition: when he is presented with a lot of different options to choose from, sometimes he is bewildered by the choices to the extent that he is unable to move. His doctor urges him to find a job where he can follow a huge number of rules, because the regularity of such a job will always enable him to choose from his options. Jacob Horner follows his doctor’s advice and accepts a position as a teacher of English grammar in a school in Wicomico. While there, he meets his fellow teacher, Joe Morgan, an excessively self-consistent man who has a rational explanation for everything, and his wife, Rennie. The three become friendly, and the rest of the novel consists of their conversations, their attempts to persuade the others out of their beliefs and opinions, and the power games they play – until all this talking leads to certain tragic consequences.

The End of the Road is a deeply philosophical novel, and it’s mainly concerned with the basic problems and questions of existentialism. Barth sometimes treats these themes seriously, but his approach is more often ironic. For instance, the starting point of the novel is realistic and absurd at the same time: Jacob Horner has a paralysis attack when he has to decide which town to travel to with the 20 dollars he has in his pocket. The ticket clerk names four different towns but Jacob is unable to choose from them. It’s not that he’s afraid of the consequences of his decision – he cannot decide because none of the four names mean anything to him and none of the towns interest him more than the other three, so he feels that selecting any one of the four is simply not worth the trouble.

For Jacob, freedom is a restrictive factor, but he can function as a more or less healthy human being if he is provided with straightforward instructions as to how to choose from his options. What further complicates Jacob’s condition, however, is the fact that he has no personality and no opinions about anything. Or, as Jacob likes to put it, the problem is that in fact he has several personalities and several opinions about everything, and he’s capable of alternating between his personalities and opinions at a moment’s notice, what’s more, he is able to hold and voice several, mutually exclusive opinions about any subject at the same time, and this leads to his inability to decide.

Jacob’s lack of opinions and personality is contrasted with Joe Morgan’s unchanging personality, inner consistency and steady opinions. Joe has an opinion about virtually everything, each of his actions derives from certain underlying principles and base virtues, and he can go on analyzing everything he does for hours. His wife, Rennie is a paler version (disciple) of Joe: her earlier, immature personality was completely overwritten by Joe – partly with the help of his persuasive discourse and partly with the help of some domestic violence. Their smug, complacent life is deeply disturbed by Jacob’s incomprehensible personality, chaotic mind, indifference, amorality and inconsistency. The Morgans are unable to find a place for Jacob in their own, thoroughly categorized world, and they seriously play with the idea that since perhaps a man is nothing more than the sum of his opinions, and Jacob keeps voicing mutually exclusive opinions all the time, it may be that he doesn’t even exist.

All this talking is very entertaining for a while, but then philosophy is put into practice, and the seemingly innocent, harmless quarrels and debates lead to a tragedy – one from which, predictably, only Jacob Horner, a person with no personality and with nothing to lose emerges unscathed.

And speaking about personality and the lack of thereof: I think it’s a touch of genius that the three protagonists of the novel are a person with no personality, a person with too strong a personality, and a person with a copycat personality. Because of this, the interactions between Jacob, Joe and Rennie never for a moment become boring, and the relations between them give rise to several interesting questions: to what extent is one allowed to deliberately influence the other’s personality? Where does one person’s personality start and where does the other’s personality end? And anyway: what constitutes someone’s personality?

Intriguing points, intriguing novel. It’s definitely worth reading.

Peach Blossom Pavilion by Mingmei Yip

I have not been affected so far by the huge popularity of geisha and, in general, Far Eastern novels. Consequently, I started to read Mingmei Yip’s novel with completely naive eyes. And even though I am still not entirely aware of all the clichés and rules of geisha/courtesan novels after reading Peach Blossom Pavilion, I got a feeling that Ms. Yip learned her lesson and made sure that she used as many of the recommended ingredients of a geisha novel as possible. (Yes, I know geishas are Japanese, and this novel is set in China, but I am sure you get the point.)

The story is set in China in the 1920s, and it centers around the beautiful young girl, Xiang Xiang (a.k.a. Precious Orchid). Our heroine is only thirteen years old when she arrives at the most elite brothel of Shanghai, Peach Blossom Pavilion, after her father was innocently sentenced to death, and her mother entered a monastery. After the initial difficulties and some feeble revolt attempts, Precious Orchid becomes a priceless possession for the owners of the brothel. She slowly evolves into an awesome and sophisticated beauty, and the Shanghai elite worships her for her countless musical, artistic and erotic talents, and immerses her in a heap of presents and flowers everyday. Precious Orchid enjoys the luxury, but in her heart, of course, she hates and despises everyone and everything connected to the brothel, and her only goal in life is to leave her golden cage one day and take her revenge for the death of her innocent father.

The novel offers all that can be enticing in a story set in an exotic, faraway, culturally different time and space. Among other things, it contains several sex scenes which seem over-mystified and much too sophisticated, but still interesting for a reader from the western world. It also offers us a glimpse of Chinese daily rituals such as the ritual of tea-drinking: the characters drink countless cups of tea during the course of the story, and drinking tea seems to have the same social function as drinking an alcoholic drink has in western literature. And to top all these, the novel contains a lot of cheap but profound-sounding, mock-Chinese philosophy about the way jin and jang, and good and bad karma interact with each other.

However, there is one ingredient which is painfully missing from the novel: the soul. Even though the story is told from Precious Orchid’s perspective, and she is telling the reader about her own life and her own experiences, the narration still lacks both feeling and a touch of personality. Her words are usually bare and hollow, and they do not manifest any feeling, pain or desire. The soullessness of the narration is even more underlined by the fact that our heroine is a very unlikable, selfish and shallow person, who, among several other things, is even capable of leaving her true love because she misses the luxury of her past.

You should not look for deep sentiments, profound characterization or believable, dramatic life stories in this novel. The best (or the least irritating) way to read this novel is to simply take it as an erotic adventure story in which the unrelenting heroine survives the most gruesome difficulties, and manages to find her place in the world against all odds. By the way, sometimes the novel reminded me of Marquis De Sade’s Justine – only without its humour. Anyway, it might be possible to enjoy this novel as an easy to read adventure story, because I certainly admit that it is full of action and it is not boring for a minute.

The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus

I read a very good and enthusiastic post about The Afterparty on Kimbofo’s blog a couple of months ago, and based on her post, it was pretty easy for me to draw the conclusion that I would probably like this novel. Sometime later, I read an equally good, though critical post about the book on Kevin’s blog, and also read through the majority of the circa 150 (and mostly critical) comments the post generated, and I became even more curious about the novel. (By the way, the comments themselves are very interesting, and what makes the whole thread even more so is that the author himself joined the discussion and managed to react to the not too favorable comments and argue in a friendly way, without any resentment whatsoever. I’m sure this is the way discussions among adults should work, but they tend not to work this way, so reading 150 comments without any rudeness was immensely delightful for me.)

Of course it’s not an accident that Leo Benedictus keeps in touch with his readers and is on the lookout for reviews about his novel. But before I go into this, let me first tell you about the novel.

The Afterparty tells the story of the birthday bash and the subsequent afterparty of Hugo Marks, a 31-year-old movie actor. The main characters are Hugo himself; his wife, the (ex-)junkie supermodel Mellody; an indistinct journalist, Michael Knight, who ends up at Hugo’s party almost by accident, after his boss hands him over her own invitation; and young pop star and X-Factor participant Calvin Vance. These four people initially don’t really have too much to do with one another, but they get into various entanglements during the party and the afterparty, and by the end of the night it becomes obvious that things will never be the same again. The events themselves are made even more interesting by the fact that they are told from multiple points of view, and of course none of the events mean quite the same to the different characters.

Apart from the ’real’ story, the references to real life and to other novels which are hidden in the story, and the gently satiric depiction of the celebrity world, however, The Afterparty is also about the way a writer called William Mendez writes a novel about the birthday bash of Hugo Marks – a novel originally titled Publicity***** –, how he manages to get his novel published, and what ideas he has about the ways his novel should be publicized.

The blurb of The Afterparty says: „This book is different. You’ve never really read a book like this before.” I don’t consider myself a burned out reader who can never be pleased with anything because she had already seen it all, still, I must admit that I did read books like this before. As regards, for instance, telling a story from multiple points of view, let me only mention some works of William Faulkner, Choderlos de Laclos or Bret Easton Ellis – but it’s true that I’ve never read a story in which the different characters’ parts are written in different fonts, and in which the font type itself plays as crucial a part in the characterization of characters as any detailed description about their personality or appearance. And I also read books dealing with the shallow and meaningless lives of celebrities; and also read novels which constantly kept reflecting on themselves and/or the outside world besides (or instead of) simply telling a story.

But it’s indeed true that I’ve never read a book incorporating all these, and I found the way Leo Benedictus mixes all these postmodern features and creates something he, for some reason, calls ’post-postmodern’ absolutely delightful. I’m not at all sure about the difference between postmodern and post-postmodern (if there is any), but I know that The Afterparty is exactly the kind of postmodern I love: it’s clever, funny, (self-)ironic, and instead of dealing with matters of life and death, it deals with a question that happens to be one of my all-time hobby-horses: what is fiction and how does it relate to reality?

The Afterparty happens to be a piece of fiction which relates to reality quite directly. As I know it contains several references to real-life British celebrities and their infamous ways, so as I’m not that much into British celebrity life, I’m sure I missed several references or jokes in the novel. Still, I didn’t find this such a big problem as I found in the novel a lot of other things to entertain me.

For instance, the fact that in a truly clever postmodern way, The Afterparty contains itself and the story of its own marketing as well. Let me mention only a few examples of how this works. One of the marketing ploys devised by William Mendez, the novelist in the novel, is that the publisher should encourage readers to publish tweets on Twitter which contain the #afterpartybook identifying label, and promise that at least one such tweet per user will be published in the appendix of the 2012 paperback edition of the novel. And what a surprise, this happens to be one of the marketing ploys surrounding The Afterparty. And it is probably also a part of the marketing that Leo Benedictus himself participates actively in creating a hype around his novel, sometimes acts in a contradictory way, and pretends that he has a huge ego.

Well, perhaps he does have a huge ego; and perhaps I’m a mindless consumer to be set up by such marketing techniques, but I find the cheeky and entertaining way The Afterparty is advertised immensely clever and funny. (Therefore I already published and afterparty-tweet and I can hardly wait to see my username in print in the 2012 paperback edition.

There’s something that bothers me, though. I wonder how lasting The Afterparty will prove after its novelty wears off, or if we take away its current relevance and the games which surrounded its first publication in March 2011, and which won’t be interesting at all one or two years from now. Right now I will not venture to decide this question. However, I consider The Afterparty such a good book that quite probably I will reread it in a couple of years’ time, and then I will write another post about my impressions.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I was about twelve years old when, rummaging through my grandmother’s shelves, I came across this novel. Thanks to the Hungarian habit of changing the simple titles of novels to more interesting ones, the book was called The Orphan of Lowood instead of Jane Eyre, and the title led me astray: I was expecting a novel similar to Oliver Twist, and found that, in Jane Eyre, it is only the first 100 pages that deal with the topic of being an orphan in Lowood, and then the novel moves on to such themes as love, self-sacrifice, passion, belief, perseverance and similar others. At the age of twelve I wasn’t too deeply interested in these topics, consequently, the story of Jane Eyre did not find its way to my heart. Now I thought it is time to re-read the novel and find out what it can offer to my somewhat older self.

When I started to read, it immediately struck me as strange that I remember the story very well, as usually I’m not too good at recalling the small details and twists and turns of a novel, and as I had not become a Jane Eyre fan during my first read, I did not expect myself to remember a lot. Still, it seems that the novel must have made a big impression somewhere deep in my mind, as now even the smallest details came back to me at once. Of course it is also possible that my knowledge of the story can be attributed to my studies: Jane Eyre is one of those texts in English literature which was analyzed a thousand times, has countless adaptations and is referred to in several other works of fiction, so it would have been quite impossible for me during my years as an English major student to bypass this text completely, and I could easily have been involuntarily immersed in the details of the story.

Anyway, despite all my memories and lack of enthusiasm, now I was drawn into the world of Jane Eyre at once, and the story did not let me go during the first two-thirds of the novel. I found that the text was outstanding, heart-rending and colorful; the behavior, values, confidence and independence of Jane Eyre were very much worth my attention; the depiction of the contemporary high society was authentic; and the development of Jane’s and Mr. Rochester’s relationship was believable and written in a beautiful language. Apart from all these, I was stunned by the modernity of the ideas in the novel. The way Jane speaks about her need for freedom of action, about her desire to use and develop her abilities, and about the equality of man and woman is much ahead of her time. (The novel was published in 1847.)

I almost believed that I was heading towards a cathartic reading experience, when something changed. I could hardly stop reading the first two volumes, but then I could hardly read the third volume, in which Jane leaves Thornfield to find her place in the world alone. I was irritated and bored at the same time by the fact that in the last 200 pages, three or four new characters were introduced, a new storyline was developed, new conflicts occurred and I witnessed unbelievable coincidences and miraculous turns – which didn’t interest me at all, since my only concern was Jane and I wanted her to find her happiness at last.

I tried to explain to myself why I found the last 200 pages of the novel so boring, and I came up with two possible reasons for this: it might be that I no longer have the patience to read very long novels, because I believe that everything worth telling can be told in 400 pages at the most – however, I can immediately refute this claim, as I know countless examples of highly engaging 400 or more page novels. And it can also be that it’s not a very brilliant idea to take a story in an absolutely new direction in its last one-third. I don’t have any scientific explanation for this, it’s only my gut feeling that it does no good to the structure and rhythm of a novel to load the story with several new elements towards its end. Personally, I don’t have an idea how the time of Jane’s necessary absence from Thornfield could have been filled in any better way, but I’m not a novelist, so I cannot be expected to know this. On the whole I think if Jane Eyre was a book of only 450 pages, it would be a perfect novel, but as it is, the eagerly longed-for catharsis didn’t come, or rather, it was lost somewhere along the totally uninteresting story of the Rivers family.

Finally, let me include some trivia here: on my copy of Jane Eyre, among the usual pieces of positive reviews there are two, rather contradictory sentences. On the front cover a certain Jenny Colgan states that “Jane Eyre has been turning girls into women for generations”; and on the back cover, Sarah Waters claims that “you have to be a grown-up to really get it”. I refrain from any further comments and just add one thing: I agree with Ms. Waters and I truly believe that Jane Eyre is not exactly the read for teenage girls.

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez

As you might guess from its title, this novel is set in Oxford and it’s about a series of murders. The narrator, a young Argentinian mathematician (whose name we don’t learn, only know that it contains a double ’l’ which makes it hard to pronounce for several people – so we might as well surmise that the name is „Guillermo”) arrives in Oxford on a one-year scholarship to study mathematical theory, but his attention to his studies soon flags for two reasons. One of these is that our hero quickly finds a girlfriend and spends his time with her instead of studying hard, and the other is that he becomes entangled in a strange murder case which seems to be the first in a series. The narrator then proceeds with the help of Arthur Seldom, the famous mathematician, to investigate the case and tries to find out how the clues left by the murderer, which are elements in a mathematical series, are connected with the individual cases in the murder series.

The most interesting feature of this novel is the narrator’s character and the role he plays in the novel. On the one hand, our hero is a typical cool guy, a Latin macho who is so charming and impetuous that he seems to be able to captivate the hearts of half the women in Oxford in a moment. Based on his age and his behavior, he – and not the considerably older Seldom – should be the supersleuth who solves the mysteries, but our young hero doesn’t seem to be a particularly apt detective, he never realizes anything on his own and it takes him quite a lot of time to find the solution. So if we read The Oxford Murders as a typical hero-and-his-sidekick story, we have to realize that the protagonist fits the role of the sidekick much better than the role of the hero.

This playful reversal is not the only interesting feature in the novel, however. As the author is a mathematician, the protagonists are mathematicians and it seems that the murderer has something to do with mathematics as well, it’s probably no surprise that the novel contains quite a lot of mathematical-philosophical ruminations. But don’t worry – they are understandable, enjoyable and thought-provoking, and they go only so deep as not to frighten away a reader like me who only likes to admire mathematics from a safe distance. Martínez doesn’t scare his readers with actual calculations and formulas but manages to show some of the beauty of mathematics.

And one more thing which makes this novel stand out from the mass of crime stories: the way Martínez depicts Oxford. He creates the atmosphere of the ancient, peaceful university town astonishingly well, and he easily makes the reader visualize a world where people don’t hang curtains on their windows and don’t lock their front doors because they have nothing to hide – but where they still live a life full of emotions and passions behind the facade of a calm, „typically English” way of life.

And after all, this clever but not too demanding novel is exactly about emotions and passions. Served with a lot of mathematics.

The Gingerbread Woman by Jennifer Johnston

According to the blurb, this is the story of the chance encounter of two people (man and woman, naturally) with damaged pasts. They develop an unusual friendship and finally with the help of each other become capable of facing the pains of their pasts and perhaps start a new life.

As it is, I happen to be a sucker for stories about people with tragic memories. I have an inexplicable drawing towards novels such as this: an intimate, very human story with few characters, dealing with the tackling of the past. Of course I’m always afraid that I run into some abhorrent kitsch about the magical healing powers of love or some similar topic, but I also always hope that perhaps this one will be something different – a truly beautiful and unobtrusive story which will find its way to my heart.

To my great delight, I quickly found that The Gingerbread Woman belongs to the second category. This is a heart-rending and painful story, so life-like that it’s almost too hard to bear, but amidst all the pain it manages to convey in a slightly paradoxical way that perhaps hope indeed springs eternal.

It is not my intention to write down in detail the traumas the protagonists, Clara and Lar have to deal with, as it is exactly the main driving force and topic of the novel how – through a series of roundabouts – they manage to face up to the past and admit at least to themselves what is torturing them. When they finally succeed in this, it is a great relief both for them and for the reader – we might as well call it a cathartic moment.

By the way it is highly interesting how very differently Lar and Clara choose to fight with their pasts. Lar claims that he doesn’t want to forget his pain, doesn’t want to be healed, and his only desire is that he should be left alone to hate the whole world in peace, while Clara attempts to be optimistic and can hardly wait until her pain is gone, so that she might be able to laugh again. Contrary to what we may expect, it is Lar who tells his story (or parts of his story) compulsively to everyone coming his way, but he refuses to listen to the sympathetic words he gets in return. Clara, on the other hand, keeps her story a secret as much as possible, and finally gets rid of her memories by writing them down as notes for a novel, that is, she fictionalizes her life.

Despite the fact that the motif of novel-writing (which usually gives a touch of literariness to any novel) appears in the book, The Gingerbread Woman remains on the ground throughout. It is especially Lar’s life which is strongly influenced by the history of his home country, Northern Ireland, but Clara herself is not the kind of heroine either who stands apart from her present and reality, and tries to spice up her boring life with imaginary ailments.

Although the novel doesn’t deal with particularly pleasant themes, it appealed to me very much all the same. I took to Clara and Lar very much, and I wanted to know as much as possible about their lives. I was almost desperate to continue whenever I had to stop reading. It doesn’t happen to me often nowadays but I got to like the protagonists so much, I found them so strong and realistic characters that it was hard for me to believe at the end of the novel that the story is over and I will never get to know more about them.

Even though the whole novel is exquisite, the end is particularly so: it answers some questions and indicates some directions in which the life of the protagonists is likely to go, but it also leaves several options open. It seems that nothing is entirely black, but it cannot be taken for granted either that everything will turn out all right in the end. And I believe it is a great achievement that the author did not feel an urge to finish the story with a happy end, but did not feel it necessary to torture her characters to death either. Jennifer Johnston seems to have found the perfect balance between suffering and hope, and created a truly wonderful novel.