We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (First thoughts)

OK, so I was supposed to be listening to "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" on my daily commute. A worthy book, but definitely one for the chaps I think. I feel sort of guilty abandoning it in favour of this book. But it was such a relief to listen to a light-hearted narrator. Although I know, from reading other reviews, "we are all completely beside ourselves" is not really a light hearted romp, but is in fact a lot more serious. And I do wish I hadn't read all those reviews for I now have some expectations. But still. So far, this is a really good book to listen to while driving. This promises to be a "cracking good read".

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Normally I would not read (or listen to) a book like this as it is far from my comfort zone, centring as it does on the construction of the Thailand Burma railway by the Japanese combined with the romantic liaisons of the main character. And it is the winner of the man Booker Prize 2014. Somehow, the prize seems to be won by difficult books that can only be read by enthusiasts, selected by experts, and I just do not have that literary background. OK – so I have actually read some of the other books that have won, and enjoyed them – such as the Life of Pi and Mantel's Wolf Hall.

The book is not the easiest read. It can be confusing, especially if you are listening to it, rather than reading it. The confusion lies in the way that Flanagan weaves several strands together, but always in the same voice. And at the core is the narrative of the men on the Line. Dorrigo Evans' women, his adventures with them, their embrace and his longing for their bodies are in sharp contrast to the brutal reality of Japanese occupied Burma and the fate of the POWs. It is this that makes the story bearable. Every time you feel enough, you lurch forward or back into the arms of a woman.

And then there is the novel's title. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Written by the poet Matsuo Basho, the work is a poetic diary of his travels through Japan in the 17th Century, and as such is one of the major texts of classical Japanese literature, the soul of Japan. Stark contrast to the reality in Burma and the war which devoured the humanity of all in its wake. At one point Dorrigo thinks "The world is. It just is" There is no rhyme or reason for its being. And here we find the existentialism and humanism of Flanagan's Dorrigo merging with the Zen Buddhism of Basho. Then there is Japan. There are two Japans. The first is the noble vision of Basho's Japan. And the second if the inhuman machine if Imperial Japan that destroys the humanity of all caught in its thrall, the imperial machine that rewards psychopaths and bullies and turns others, more gentle souls into its fodder.

Is this an enjoyable read? No. Yet there is something that says read on, for if you do not, then the stories of all those who suffered and died in Burma on the railway will be lost. And that is why I continue reading.

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This is the third book of the trilogy started by Shadow of the Wind by the Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I have just finished listening to it (purchased from Audible.co.uk). The Prisoner of Heaven is taken from a book by Julian Carax, the fictional author from the Shadow of the Wind. I had enjoyed the Shadow of the Wind, so much so that the Angel’s Game (book 2 of the trilogy) was something of an anticlimax. But this book brings both books together. The narrator is Daniel Sempere who is now married to Bea and has a small son. The star of the book is Fermin (Fermin Romero de Torres), an unlikely hero. Small, slight, not good looking, most definitely not a Hollywood star, on whose body is enscribed the brutality of the Franco regime and the barbarity of the Spanish Civil War. The story centres on Fermin’s time as a prisoner in the dreaded Montjuic Castle and his friendship with david Martine, the main character from the Angel’s Game. Despite the brutality of his experiences, Fermin is a man of compassion, a man of courage, the sort of man that anyone would be proud to have as a friend.

Fermin is about to be married to Bernarda, and all is not well with the groom to be. A mysterious stranger turns up in the Sempere bookshop and this stranger is the catalyst for Fermin to tell his story to Daniel. In this story Daniel finds out more about his friend and his mother as well as finding out what was troubling the groom to be.

Zafon writes a good book, the narrative is gripping, one begun it, the book has to be finished. Zafon draws us into two eras of Barcelona’s history – the Barcelona of 1960 and the post civil war Barcelona of the 1940s. How does a city recovery from a civil war, how does a city cope with a fascist dictatorship? How can the desire for revenge accommodate the desire to live a normal live?

There is a twist in the story, the world of David Martin. This is a world where the thin veil that separates the world of reality from the world of mental illness. How do we know what is real and what is fantasy? And yet here, right at the end of the book is a twist. Just when you think that there is only the real world, that the whole story can be explained, Zafon throws in the Angel from the Angel’s Game.

The Shadow of the Wind second post

First published: July 2012

I have just finished reading this book. A delight to read. What kind of book is it? A love story? A historical novel? A thriller. A comedy – or a tragedy. Like all great books, this book does not easily fit into such categories for it is a multi-layered novel.

So some observations

Syria is descending into civil war. The cruelty and brutality will beggar belief. Zafón’s book is set against the recovery from such a civil war. The Spanish Civil War ended finally in April 1939 – Barcelona had fallen to Franco’s republicans in January. The aftermath of the civil war was cruel and brutal. Even 10 years later, the repercussions can still be felt.

Stalking the streets is Inspector Fumero, a psychopath who enjoys cruelty, who glories in prolonging the suffering of his victims and specialises in murder. Is Fumero’s characterisation over the top? Sadly no, for we just have to look at what is happening in so many parts of the world to realise that there are instances of Inspector Fumero in all totalitarian regimes.

The story hinges on lies and the suppression of the truth. The character of Julian Carax, the fictional author of the Shadow of the Wind, falls in love with his benefactor’s daughter, Penelope. But the untold truth is that Julian is in fact his benefactor’s illegitimate son. The love affair is ended tragically and for Penelope, barbarically. Julian is forced into exile. And now the second distortion of the truth – the fate of Penelope is kept from Julian by his closest friend. But when Julian discovers the truth, then another tragedy unfolds. Julian sees himself accursed, the devil, and scours Barcelona for copies of his work to destroy.

And another motif is bought into play – the motif of redemption.The boy Daniel is entranced by the work of Julian Carax, he wants to know about the author, there is no ulterior motive. For so long, Julian had regarded himself as a thing absolutley outside  the decency. Yet Daniel, with his enthusiasm and innocence remins Julian of what he once was.  Slowly Julian changes, and when the pregnant Bea has had to flee from the wrath of her family, it is Julian who takes her it and protects her. The story of Penelope and Julian echoes the story of Daniel and Bea. History does not repeat itself and Bea and Daniel escape the tragedy that engulfed Julian’s life. At the end of the novel we find that Julian has begun writing again.

It is not often that you come across a book that is so satisfying to read and stays with you . This is just such a book.


Updated: July 9, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Audio book read June 2007, first published July 2012

This is a story of a family caught up in the terrible events of the Biafran War. In the 1960’s we had pictures of terrible starvation in Biafra – the images of skeletal, pot-bellied children stay with me even today. The tragedy was that Nigeria had the potential to be a rich country, and yet the population was starving to death because of the intransigence of a few generals. One wonders if such a situation would be tolerated today.

The book was an eye-opener onto an African world, from an African perspective at a time of appalling suffering. Biafra was a nation state that reached out for independence yet starved into submission and this story follows this process through the lives of Odenigbo, a university professor, Olanna and Ugwu, Odenigbo’s house boy. Olanna is sometimes described as Odenigbo’s mistress, but today we would describe her as Odenigbo’s partner.

There is meat enough in the relationship between Odenigbo and Olanna without a civil war. This begins with a story of middle class Africans, educated in English and treading the line between traditional African and global/British middle-class culture. Olanna and her twin sister Kainene are modern African women from a wealthy family. There is the personal level in this story bringing to life the events that we witnessed through news programmes. What do you do when your partner impregnates another woman (although if Ugwu’s account is to be believed, Odenigbo is tricked into this)? How do you cope when your relatives are massacred in an inter-ethnic uprising? And what impact does it make on you when you have to live in a refugee camp?

Half of a Yellow Sun does what all great literature should do – open the doors into a different world and then reveal a shared humanity. It is worth reading





Audio book: http://www.audible.co.uk/pd/ref=sr_1_3?asin=B004EWB8O2&qid=1342363666&sr=1-3