In My Reading Log, Summer 2017

In which there is talk of novels which were read too quickly to allow for extensive note-taking and snapshots: good reading.

Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door (2017)
Omotoso The Woman Next DoorLonglisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize this year, this story about two women in their eighties, neighbours in South Africa, is quietly mesmerizing. The prose is straightforward, the action inward, but something about Hortensia and Marion made this unputdownable for me.

Hortensia is living in the house which Marion designed when she was an up-and-coming young architect (before she gave up her career to focus on raising her family). Now both women are widows for Hortensia’s husband has recently died, and while she and Marion are at odds – and have been for, well, always – their conflict plays out against a backdrop of a more distanced conflict, in which a family who was unjustly removed from their land generations before is seeking permission to bury a loved one’s ashes in their community.

Both women married white men and benefitted from the prestige this alliance secured or protected (but also suffered from different kinds of injustice). When Marion comes to learn some of the community’s history, she longs to apologize – to her housekeeper, Agnes and even to Hortensia – but she cannot find the words. Her history of malice and cruelty leads her to dark places, and she is stunned to discover that Hortensia is not naturally superior anymore than she was declared naturally inferior under Apartheid, for Hortensia, too, is capable of cruelty.

How we refuse one another the simple (and complicated) kindnesses, when or whether it is to late to correct longstanding wrongs, and how we cope when we are in desperate need (and on an everyday basis, when we are not): these big ideas made me admire Yewande Omotoso’s novel, but those two small characters were what kept me turning the pages (especially Hortensia’s smart mouth).

Cusk The Lucky OnesRachel Cusk’s The Lucky Ones (2003)
Beginning with an unforgettable sequence involving a first-time mother’s particularly intense labour sessions (rather than spoil it, you can imagine what conditions might make labour even more intense), this is a startlingly tense novel, especially given that most of the action is psychological and relational.

There are many brief but disturbing dramatic scenes (some outright violent, some unfolding in a hostile environment) and the characters who inhabit them are linked, but the connections between them are not fully understood for some time. This collection of linked stories (blurbed as a novel) is not as tightly constructed as, say, Simon van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness (2013) but nor is it as loose as, say, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading (2012).

What does excuse the ‘novel’ billing however is that the work is also linked thematically. The characters do intertwine but the even stronger sense of connection is, ironically, the pervasive sense of disconnect. Whether a 61-year-old woman is confronting her husband with year’s of (mostly) swallowed bitterness or a 20-something young woman is disappointed in a vacation which hasn’t turned out as she’d hoped, these characters are disappointed and adrift, even those who seem most determinedly rooted.

The work opens with a quote from Katherine Mansfield: “The firm compact little girls were not half so brave as the tender, delicate-looking little boys.” Katherine Mansfield readers will take the hint: not a lot happens here, not in a traditionally-plot-soaked sense. Other readers will be left just as aswim: is it better to be firm or tender, brave or delicate-looking? Any answer that you think you might spot, by squinting between the lines, will be contradicted in just a few pages. Which is what makes this story so challenging. So comfortable. So tragic. And exhilarating.

Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo (2010)

Storytellers in the world of Karen Lord’s debut novel seek out drama, as “excellent observers of humanity, professional harvesters of gossip and scandal”.  If readers assume they’re in for a romp, they’re right. This does not necessarily mean a tidy resolution: “Now I have come at last to the end of the story. For some in my audience, a tale is like a riddle, to be solved at the end. To then I say the best tales leave some riddles unanswered and some mysteries hidden. Get used to it.”

Infused with elements of Caribbean and Senegalese folklore, the characters feel both strange and familiar. (Although here an immortal can have not only wisdom and a sharp tongue but a sense of humour as well.) Not all of the main characters are human, but every one of them faces some disadvantages as well. (Well, how many of us know any immortals well enough to have conversations about their daily lives and their work, their responsibilities and to-do lists. It can’t be all fun and games.)

“’‘It must be nice, not to have to eat, or sleep, or get cold and wet,’ Paama complained, shaking the drizzle off her grey wrap.
‘It must be nice,’ the djombi parroted in reply, ‘to taste, to dream, to feel the wind and the rain in your face.’”

The storyteller’s voice is direct and playful, and readers never forget that they are being led on this journey. “We are going to leave Paama and Giana for a while, because there are other things happening elsewhere that we should examine now lest they surprise us later on.” These directions (which some readers might feel to be intrusions) are scattered lightly through the text, but the chapters are short and the pacing solid, so that they feel like friendly nudges.

Although warned that in “stories as in life, it is an impossible task to please everybody”, Redemption in Indigo is enchanting, appealing directly to the sense of wonder in each of us. Her second novel is reputed to be every bit as satisfying, and I’m really looking forward to it.

What books have you been reading too quickly for note-taking?

2017-09-20T10:23:01+00:00

13 Comments

  1. Naomi July 25, 2017 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    I think The Woman Next Door sounds the most appealing to me. But they all sound good. I wasn’t a big fan of Outline, but The Lucky Ones sounds like something I’d like better.

    I read Persuasion about a week ago without taking any notes at all – it was purely for pleasure (and to remind me of the details). Although I’ve been taking notes as usual on most of my reading this summer, I haven’t written about any of it yet. Luckily I’m not moving along too quickly or it would be really piling up!

    • Buried In Print July 26, 2017 at 6:57 am - Reply

      Oooh, I think you’re right: you would prefer The Lucky Ones. Persuasion would be lovely for a straight-through read. My last reread of an Austen was like that too. I’m reading more slowly than usual too: as the library stack attests to. There are just so many other things to do right now, which must be how “normal” people feel all the time. Hee.

  2. iliana July 24, 2017 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    I almost bought The Woman Next Door and for some reason put it back. Need to add it to my shelves. It sounds like a wonderful story.

    • Buried In Print July 24, 2017 at 7:09 pm - Reply

      There aren’t enough stories about women growing older, let alone ones which try to suggest that one can choose to grow thruogh one’s later years: this is definitely a worthwhile read.

  3. Starr griggs July 22, 2017 at 9:38 pm - Reply

    Redemption in Indigo is one of my favorites and one that I want to revisit soonish. I read it a long time ago

    • Buried In Print July 24, 2017 at 1:15 pm - Reply

      It really flows, and I knew almost immediately that I wasn’t going to be taking notes in that one. Have you read her second one? I’m really looking forward to that one, and I have the idea that it’s a little longer and a little more complicated.

  4. Laila July 22, 2017 at 10:29 am - Reply

    I’m just glad to see a blogger admit that they sometimes read things to quickly for note-taking! 🙂 I didn’t want to be the only one. That’s when I do the old “mini-review” trick.

    • Buried In Print July 24, 2017 at 1:14 pm - Reply

      Hahaha. I haven’t noticed a pattern to it, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen and, yet, I often enjoy those stories quite a bit and want to try to secure the memory more nonetheless.

  5. Rebecca Foster July 21, 2017 at 4:20 am - Reply

    Unfortunately, there have been a lot of novels lately that I’ve had to push myself to get through, even prize-winners and highly anticipated releases. The one that flowed most quickly for me recently was How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus, and I’m also gulping down Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children — I’m having to force myself to put it down occasionally so I can pick up other things with review or library deadlines.

    The Woman Next Door was one of the books that appealed to me most from the Women’s Prize longlist, but for some reason I haven’t sought it out yet. I’ve had such poor luck with Rachel Cusk, but I wonder if I’d get on with this one.

    • Buried In Print July 24, 2017 at 1:12 pm - Reply

      The Marcus book looks like one I would like, and I’m curious to read another of Sarah Moss’s novels, as I really enjoyed her last one (I think I loved it even more than you did, IIRC). It’s always a good sign when a read tempts you away from deadlines. I do think you’d prefer this Cusk novel to her more recent ones (which I think I remember you didn’t care for at all), but I am partial to linked (but not TOO tightly linked) story collections to begin with.

      • Rebecca Foster July 24, 2017 at 2:50 pm - Reply

        I couldn’t get through Outline or Aftermath, her memoir about her divorce. It makes me think I just don’t get on with her style.

        • Buried In Print July 24, 2017 at 3:22 pm - Reply

          I think the POV in The Lucky Ones is more distant in theory but actually feels more intimate than what I remember of Outline. I wonder if maybe her earlier stuff would appeal more; maybe her preoccupations as a writer shifted slightly (or not-so-slightly) along the way (post-divorce?!).

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