Hard times in the Highlands

I was embarrassingly pleased with myself for both purchasing and finishing a Man Booker nominated novel before the winner was announced.

Never mind that I failed to post my review before Paul Beatty was handed his award, because Graeme MacRae Burnet’s His Bloody Project (Saraband 2015) deserves to be discussed long after the literary world has turned its gaze towards the next longlist.

MacRae Burnet begins his book by claiming to have found his 19th century relative’s letters whilst researching the Scottish Highlands. Taken aback by their literary quality, he decides to publish them. The relative, we hear, is Roderick ‘Roddy’ Macrae, a young lad of only 17 who has slaughtered people in cold blood in the tiny, nine-house crofter village of Culduie. The book then consists of his own account of the events, written in an Inverness prison while waiting for his trial, as well as statements from other villagers, medical experts, et cetera. At the risk of sounding like an idiot, I’ll admit I was fooled—for a while at least!

culduie2

Culduie today

Continue reading

Advertisements

Haven’t you heard? It’s Finnish

This is a new series in which I will be presenting and talking about books from Finland. First up: a very short introduction to Finnish literary history up until the 1980s.

Finnish literature might just be the next big thing. Sweden and Norway are both quite well established on the world literature scene after the successes of Karl Ove Knausgård, Jonas Jonasson, Henning Mankell, and many others, but Finland is still waiting for its big break. You might in the past heard the names of Tove Jansson (of the Moomins fame), Arto Paasilinna (who enjoys popularity in France), or more recently Sofi Oksanen. Pushkin Press published the YA novel Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff a few months ago, and Aki Ollikainen‘s White Hunger (Peirene Press) was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Finland was also the guest of honour at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair. So much great Finnish literature is being translated right now, you really should stay in the loop!

cec3d9be5dbb47f2b6a8116fded45f5d

Moominpappa enjoys life

Continue reading

Opium, bonanzas, and whores — New Zealand’s wild west in The Luminaries

In a world where we’re supposed to cry tears of joy whilst ridding ourselves of old crap (cue KonMari), I’m not ashamed to admit I’m prone to nostalgia.

In particular, I’m endlessly drawn to revisiting places. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from recognising familiar features, familiar sounds, a familiar sense of space. Yet these moments are at the same time coloured by sadness because they, more so than any other moments, make me feel difference and change in me. The place might be the same, but I’m not.

This is my awkward transition to books: I also hugely enjoy rereading them, mostly because I know exactly what I’m getting. The risk of going for a new book, possibly the beginning of a new love affair, possibly a horrible, time-wasting letdown, is occasionally more than a vulnerable reader can handle. I don’t get bored of re-encountering stories, characters, and moods — they never feel quite the same as they did the previous time, because I’ll have changed.

Of course, a book must be great for me to want to reread it in the first place, and Eleanor Catton‘s The Luminaries (Granta, 2013) is a fantastic example of such a book. I first read it just over a yeah ago (yes, its 832 pages took me, hmm, maybe 2 months to finish, and yes, I am ashamed to admit that), mostly sat on the train in or out of London whilst doing my internship. I’d bought the book mainly because I knew it had won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, and also because the location, New Zealand in the 1860s, sounded cool. Also, I was really into astrology as a teenager, but let’s not go there. Continue reading

In Need of Literary Surgery – A Review on The English Patient

I really wanted to enjoy, even love, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992). I’d seen the film version, directed by Anthony Minghella and released in 1996, some years previously and found it visually stunning. Hoping to explore the plot and the characters in more depth, I grabbed the book with high expectations.

Man meets married woman, they fall in love, jealous husband tries to kill both and ultimately succeeds. Girl meets mysterious boy, they fall in love, boy gets upset over a nuclear bomb and leaves. Throw in some morphine, a thief, dismantling bombs, Italian landscape and a lot of desert sand and you get The English Patient.

The story uses different time levels and flashbacks for added richness that I generally found to be working well, even though the pacing could at times have been slightly faster. Despite the plot being so exciting and dramatic, Ondaatje seems to have wanted to focus on building a lingering atmosphere in which the emphasis is on characters and language rather than the action.

At best, that descriptive, impressionistic language is a delight to read because it manages to evoke fresh ideas and imagery. At worst, it succeeds in nothing but being repetitive, boring and pretentious. Unfortunately The English Patient is more of the latter: uninspired and tedious, the language resembles that of a diligent creative writing student aiming high but failing to produce anything of much interest outside the classroom.

The best passages in an altogether disappointing book I found to be halfway through the story where the desert explorations were described. It really is quite telling that these passages consist of facts rather than Ondaatje’s fiction. Some books actually work much better filmed, and The English Patient is one of them.