Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

"I'm black and white in a full colour universe"

Salman Rushdie's Booker Prize nominated novel Quichottte (pronounced key-SHOT) is a contemporary road-trip novel inspired by Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605). In Rushdie's update a pharmaceutical salesman 'of Indian origin, advancing years and retreating mental powers' sets off, with his son Sancho, across America in search of his obsession, Bollywood actress turned TV star Salma R.

The road-trip itself takes in myriad towns across the US allowing Rushdie the perfect opportunity to use his literature to comment on Trumpism, celebrity culture, climate change, xenophobia and the opioid crisis. As a state of the nation piece this is insightful, intelligent and, at times, highly entertaining writing with  level of satire that Cervantes would doubtless applaud. Yet with Salman Rushdie there is typically more at play. 

The road-trip is framed as a story within a story about a second rate spy writer, with the pen name Sam DuChamp, who creates the character Quichotte and his son Sancho who is invisible to everyone but his father. This narrative flourish, with a nod to the Cervantes source text, proves essential as the story becomes increasingly fantastic - at one point a talking cricket appears to console Sancho in a tribute to Pinocchio, later the inhabitants of one town transform into mastodons, the mammoth like creatures whose fossilised remains turn up across North America, as their ideology becomes increasingly prehistoric. 

If there is a problem with Quichotte it is that Rushdie tries to do too much with the story. Though there are road trip elements the novel has more in common with the surrealist melancholy of Haruki Murakami or Franz Kafka; 'I'm black and white in a full colour universe' Sancho realises as he tries to understand his nature. 

There are times when Rushdie's own voice becomes over-bearing as the writer of the novel speaks about the spy thriller writer who has written a story about a salesman, its exhausting. Nontheless, overall Quichotte is an expertly told story that rides the zeitgeist like a modern day Don Quixote. 

Remarkable, challenging and thought provoking 4.5⭐️

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie published by Jonathan Cape 416 pages

Saturday, 26 October 2019

The Need by Helen Philips

"That's what fossils from dead lineages are.... messengers from alternate realities"

A desperately busy mother finds herlself stretched to the limits. Childcare and breast-feeding demands vie for attention with the strange fossils she is unearthing at work as a paleobotanist; an ancient coke bottle, toy soldiers with monkey tails, a bible with all devine pronouns changed to 'she'. 

When an intruder enters the family home we're left wondering ,is this the reality or the work of an over whelmed mind?

Disturbing, fascinating and utterly unique 4⭐️

The Need by Helen Philips published by Chatto and Windus 272 pages

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Lie With Me by Philipe Besson

"I am this young man there, in the winter of Barbezieux"

Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is a beautifully written love story told from the perspective of a writer who is transported back to school by a chance encounter in the bar of a hotel.

The flashback part of the story is set in a small town, Barbezieux, in France in 1984 where an awkward seventeen year old boy Philippe gazes at his school mate Thomas as he leans against a wall with his 'shaggy hair, the hint of a beard and a serious look'. Barbezieux is 'from a bygone era, a dying city, a past without glory' yet in this unlikely setting a passionate relationship develops between the boys. 

The structure of the novel is well conceived. A middle aged Philippe spots a young man who immediately transports him back to his first experience of love at school. The young man, Philippe discovers, is Thomas's son Lucas. 

That such events were to unfold in this unremarkable town to this unremarkable boy are told with innocence by Besson whose prose is never over the top. Both passion and shame are vividly portrayed with understated intimacy.

The fact that the novel is translated from the French by Eighties movie icon, and francophile, Molly Ringwald is a boon. 

A tender and innocent book you'll want to read in one sitting 4⭐️ 

Lie with Me by Philippe Besson published by Penguin 160 pages

Monday, 14 October 2019

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

A few short words about an epic read

Herman Melville's literary landmark novel, Moby Dick (1851), is a whale sized read. Not only are the 720 pages themselves daunting but a cursory flick through reveals just how dense Melville's writing is combing literary fiction with essay and encyclopaedia in a unique tome. So what is the experience of cracking the spines on a novel like Moby Dick today?

First up the novel is a classic adventure story with action, heroes and episodic thrills as novice seaman Ishmael joins an experienced whaling crew lead by Captain Ahab. From Nantucket to the South China Sea Captain Ahab obsessively leads his crew across the globe in search of the legendary great white whale Moby Dick.

The crew of The Pequod itself are a diverse group of men. Whalers from New England work alongside harpooners from the Pacific and sailors from Asia. For a novel set in the 1850's Melville's cast are drawn from especially distinct backgrounds but its the relationship between narrator Ishmael and crew mate Queequeg which is the most interesting. Early in the novel the pair agree to share a bunk and to essentially live together in a same sex marriage; "He pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married". Over 100 years before the US Enterprise, The Pequod was leading the way on diversity and inclusion.

Perhaps the most memorable element of the experience is losing yourself in a truly immersive book. Melville expertly allows the reader to see the world through the eyes of Ishmael whose naivety and youth permit the switch from prose fiction style chapters to the essays. In this way we learn about the World, about the 'taxonomy of cetecea' and the intricacies of whaling through the eyes of a young man who is literally a sponge.

Everything about Moby Dick is exceptional no less its legacy given that Melville himself died in obscurity in 1891 before the book was celebrated as a classic.  

Broad in ambition and rich in achievement 5⭐️ 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville published by Penguin Classics 720 pages