The majority of my reading time this year has been devoted to the books which have been living for years, though neglected, on my own bookshelves. In May and June, I had a planned rebellion, and I enjoyed a great number of new books. But now I have returned to my own shelves once more.
Anchee Min’s Red Azalea (1993)
“Falling in love is so powerful that it makes you forget about almost everything else, even making revolution. Instead of wanting to struggle and destroy things, you want to find peace and to celebrate living. Because the Party knows that people in love are no longer completely under its control, its leaders have always been deeply fearful of love.”
When Anchee Min left China in 1984, she tried to write her memoir, but it wasn’t until her knowledge of English improved that she was able to put this story to paper. She required a new language to share her experiences. A language which represented the freedom that she had, at last, found.
Because she is looking into the past, in writing Red Azalea, the structure of the novel is primarily chronological, beginning with her childhood (she was born in 1957), but with some slippery bits; sometimes, her recollections pull her into musings and reflections, and the story waits until she has relayed this only-later-understood information.
This adds a sense of urgency to the story, as though there is still something unfolding, even though it is only her present-day understanding and thinking (meaning present-day at the time of her writing) which is still in flux.
There is also an undercurrent of tension simply due to the historical events, the restraints and cruelties she endured during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Nonetheless, what is most impressive about this story is neither this sense of urgency or the underlying tension, but readers’ growing awareness of a poet who is observing a time of great change. This is intensifed, further, by her love for another young woman in the camp. (This book has also completely changed my feelings about mosquito nets.)
Suzette Mayr’s Moon Honey (1995)
Carmen was a young white girl before she was a young black girl. She was having (lots of) sex with her boyfriend Griffin in both skins. She likes that he knew her when she was white, because as she moves out of school and into the working world, as she collects new experiences like trading cards, the people who know her have always known her to be black.
And of course that comes with many suppositions and prejudices, which Carmen can cite rigorously because she used to possess and promote many of them as a privileged white girl with perfect blonde hair and all the best shades of lipstick.
So those who meet Carmen later in her life only see one side of her. And sometimes all they see is the colour of her skin. Moon Honey is an ideal vehicle to explore the complicated territory of racism, and Suzette Mayr’s penchant for transformative tales (see Venous Hum) was solidly afoot even in this first novel.
Carmen’s transformation unfolds in standard text, but the novel is punctuated with italicized passages detailing other dramatic changes which characters experience.
But just as remarkable are the glimpses into characters’ pasts, so that even the seemingly unsympathetic characters are shown a degree of understanding that readers might not have afforded them based on first impressions.
So that readers, too, can allow their ideas about the story to transform.
When he shows his art to a new friend met in Paris, Pierre’s work has the power to transport.
Gabrielle Roy’s writing, too, depicts a strong sense of place which invites readers into new territories.
Her fifth novel not only spends a significant amount of time in northern lands, but also in France.
Pierre’s drawing is represented as hard work; it is more like mountain-climbing which requires serious exertion than day-dreaming which comes naturally and easily. In many ways, it is a quiet meditative novel.
“The death of the present is nothing; it is the loss of the future within oneself that is heart-rending.”
But there are sharper moments too, including the winter Pierre spends with a trapper in the north, and these visceral passages ensure that readers do not forgot that a mountain, hidden or otherwise, may have a beautiful peak but has a solid and impressive foundation beneath as well.
Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True (1998)
“Was that the night that triggered it- set into motion whatever had blossomed in Thomas’s brain? Biochemistry, biogenetics: none of the articles I’d read – none of the experts I’d listened to – had ever been able to explain why Thomas had gotten the disease and I hadn’t. Had we given it to him – my mother and Ray and me?” (762)
Readers who discovered his work with the Oprah-lauded debut, She’s Come Undone, will find many of the same qualities in Dominick’s story. Both stories feel as though they are told to you in a basement room, a sheltered and warm space but one which seems to demand an excess of afghans all the same.
You, as listener, sink into a couch, and when you reach up to have your tumbler filled with another finger of rum, you realize you’ve sunk deeper than you could have if there’d been any spring left in the cushions.
Wally Lamb likes to get down to details and his dialogue (inner and outer) is plentiful and wordy, and this story of twin brothers is painfully insular and sorrow-soaked: you can’t help but feel a little claustrophobic.
Every kind of loss that a person can experience makes an appearance in the novel and often it is reflected in another aspect of the story as well (which suits a story about twins).
Abuse and miscarriage, rape and betrayal, illness and alienation: all told in a tone which invites readers to hunker down, settle in.
And, after a few hundred pages, a second narrative emerges and alternates with the story paper: a translation of some family papers which adds another dimension to Dominick and Thomas’ experience with schizophrenia.
The plot is as compelling as one found in a Jodi Picoult novel but the prose is neither streamlined nor polished, so that the artistry seems to add only bulk instead of flare.
In some ways, this can be explained as one can explain The Goldfinch’s style and length: the product of a burdened and searching narrator.
But I fell a little in love with at least one of Donna Tartt’s characters, and perhaps that kind of connection is necessary for a work like this to afford a reader the opportunity to cosy into uncomfortable lodgings.
So far all the good reading on my own shelves has encouraged me to stick with this change in habits.
Have you been changing reading habits lately? Willingly or otherwise?