Review of ‘The cellist of Sarajevo’ by Steven Galloway

This is not a novel that I would have picked up if I hadn’t been asked to review it. I found both the brown blah cover and the title entirely uninviting, and the blurb did little to persuade me otherwise. It turns out though that this is a surprisingly engaging book. Once I began reading I was sucked in and mounting tensions kept me eagerly turning pages to find out more.

 

The story is fiction inspired by fact. The real cellist of Sarajevo is (according to Wiki) Vedran Smailović known as the “Cellist of Sarajevo”, a musician from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He played in the Sarajevo Opera, the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, The Symphony Orchestra ,TV Sarajevo, and The National Theatre of Sarajevo.

After the start of the war in Bosnia, Vedran Smailović, just like hundreds of thousands of other residents who endured the Siege of Sarajevo, survived the cold, food and water shortages, the constantbombings and sniper fire in the street.

In 1992, Smailović played his cello for 22 days to honour the 22 people who had been killed while queuing for bread. This act caught the imagination of people around the world. Composer David Wilde wrote a piece for cello called “The Cellist of Sarajevo” in his honour which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma. Smailović was also known for playing for free at different funerals despite the alleged history of targeting of funerals by Bosnian Serb forces.

He managed to leave the besieged city in late 1993, and since then has been involved in numerous music projects, as a performer, composer and conductor. Smailović now lives in Northern Ireland.

It’s an incredible story, but it is told without overblown histrionics. The cellist plays not knowing that an unseen female sniper, Arrow, has been assigned to keep him from harm. She watches from a window, scanning the scene for the sniper she knows will be there. Kenan is a man on his way to fetch water, and we join him on his tense journey. Dragan ensured his wife and son escaped to safety, but he remains, working in a bakery, missing them.

The author writes in a cool, somewhat detached, tone, and yet as a reader I became engaged with the three main characters. There are some original observations about how people under constant threat change (so many women have grey hair now that dye is unavailable), and there is much food for thought in the ethical concerns that Arrow explores. The end feel perhaps inevitable, but nonetheless this is an effective and moving book.

Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction by Alison MacLeod

I realise that I didn’t post this review when it was first published at The Short Review, so here it is now!


These are indeed fifteen modern tales of attraction in which MacLeod relates stories of love, electricity, hearts, and death. Here is an author unafraid to push at the shape of what a story can be, what it can say.

Some of the stories are surreal and startling, the characters revealing unusual desires. It is because of the author’s skill that we accept the strange urges: Nineteen-year-old Naomi wants to have sex with a dead man in Sacred heart, and she is utterly believable. Gloria craves both electric shock therapy and the doctor who administers it in Live Wire.

Nina ponders her knowledge of penises and describes them thus: “…primitive life forms: single-celled creatures who live, blind and unpigmented, in the pools of caves, sluggishly longing for transformation.” She is very aware of the effect that she has on all males, including her friend’s young son.

Rosie’s tongue is playful and wordy, E-Love: Heloise and Abelard offers up email exchanges between the lovers. It is excellent to see such experimentation with form, and yet it leads to a slightly choppy feel to the collection. Personally I found two stand-out stories to be two of the most conventionally told. They were written with such brilliant illumination, and were both extraordinarily moving. The first is So that the land was darkened, where we witness a relationship over six years, glimpsed in three parts that reveal everything to make this a living, breathing, love affair. I won’t say more for fear of ruining it for you, but I found it powerful and resonant.

Dirty weekend explores a relationship in two parts, one where both characters are full of life and lust, and the other, a couple of years later, with one of them dying as they make a last attempt at a traditional smutty weekend break in Brighton. Even when dealing with such subjects MacLeod never resorts to sentimentality or saccharine.

Oh, and don’t be put off by the cover, it doesn’t do justice to the intelligent and provocative work within!

The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith

A new edition of The Short Review is now up, and includes my review of The Book of Other People.

Zadie Smith has persuaded an impressive roster of writers to respond to her remit to “create a character”, and their names alone should encourage plenty of people to buy this collection.

The book opens with the disappointing Judith Castle by David Mitchell. I am unsure if this was a deliberate pastiche of one of those women’s magazine twist-in-the-tale stories, but it is an obvious and clichéd story about a deluded middle class, middle aged caricature of a woman who has been informed of her lover’s death. Jordan Wellington Lint by Chris Ware unexpectedly moved me. This is one of the two graphic stories, and the illustrations and text combine to produce a heartbreaking portrait of a boy up to the age of 13.

A.L Kennedy’s Frank is typically well written. This story of a broken man has depth and emotion thanks to Kennedy’s attention to detail that adds layer to layer and makes Frank “real.” Hari Kunzru paints a vibrant picture of Magda Mandela. She stands in her lime-green thong shouting on her boyfriends’ doorstep, worrying the neighbours, singing and threatening. “I HAVE A CONDOM. LINE UP. I AM READY.”

Somewhat surprisingly in a book of characters, both Toby Litt and Dave Eggers chose to write about a monster. Both were well written, but neither made much of an impression on this reader. Miranda July writes a tender story of lost opportunity realized too late in Roy Spivey. Spivey, a Hollywood heart-throb who the narrator finds herself sitting next to on a flight, gives her his phone number.

“I felt warm and simple. Nothing bad could ever happen to me while I was holding hands with him, and when he let go I would have the number that ended in four. I’d wanted a number like that my whole life.”

Colm Toibin writes a beautiful mournful story, Donal Webster. Andrew Sean Greer succeeds in capturing a child’s imagination in Newton Wicks. Some stories I read with a “so what?” shrug. Reading taste is subjective, everyone will have his or her own favourites and least liked. My own highlight was Puppy by George Saunders. To be honest I thought he was a writer that I did not “get”, but in this dreadful aching story I was both absorbed and horrified. The two central characters remain with me, and how I wish I could change the outcome. I will definitely explore more of his work.

This book serves as a showcase that will bring new readers to some of these authors and is varied enough that there really will be something for everyone. It is a pity that it seems as if some writers dashed off a character study rather than stopping to create fully rounded stories, but the good ones shine out.

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

I was not a huge fan of The Lovely Bones. In fact I was disappointed by it. I don’t recall much, except that I thought it a very strong idea that was let down by the execution. So, yes, what do I know, it continues to sell strongly, although I can’t understand how as surely by now everyone in the country has a copy!
Alice Sebold seems rather fabulous though. I read an interview with her recently that was the determining factor in me wanting to give The Almost Moon a go despite having not rated TLB’s highly.

The Almost Moon begins with the line ‘When all is said and done, killing my mother came quite easily.’ So, no messing about, here is the meat of the novel; a woman kills her mother. Then we follow the next 24 hours, as we stay with the narrator, Helen, and hear her thoughts, her flashbacks and watch her past unfold. There is a sense of cool detachment that reminds me of Lionel Shriver in ‘We need to talk about Kevin’. And they do have a similar core I think, In WNTTAK the main character struggles with her feelings for her son, here in TAM the central character struggles with her feelings for her mother. When all is done though I am left thinking, oh, so the mum had mental health issues, as did the dad, as does the daughter. Oh. And any sympathy that arises quickly dissipates when not only does Helen kill her mother but then hacks off her long plait and stuffs it into her bag, then goes to fuck her best friends son, coldly and mechanically. It becomes hard to care for her, although perhaps I did a little.

There is a smattering of therapy speak, and some of the motifs are a little heavy handed. This is a flaw I found irritating, oh look she is wearing her mother’s slip and her father carved wooden people and her ex husband sculpts with ice and dirt whist she strips as an artists model and so on. Argh!

I have to assume that as intelligent and honest and sparkly as Sebold seems to me in interviews, I am just not going to ‘get’ her fiction in a meaningful way. I’m sure I’ll be selling this book for years to come though.

Kate Atkinson "One Good Turn"

There are certain authors whose books I will buy as they come out (I usually wait for paperback). I do so in the knowledge that I have loved what has gone before and the likelihood is that I will feel the same about their new work. It’s akin to buying music. I adore the Barenaked Ladies, I think that Steven Page and Ed Robertson have gorgeous voices and they write clever, witty songs. They may bring out an album that doesn’t resonate with me as much as a prior one, but it will still be good. I can depend on them. Same is true of my favourite authors. But lately I have been consistently disappointed. I buy a book wanting to love it. I am full of anticipation for this new book by a favourite author. And I am bored, disengaged, and grumpy.

Right now I am reading Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. It was my treat: a relaxing page turner, a delicious book. I had been looking forward to it since it emerged in hardback last year, having wolfed down Case Histories. I thought highly of Atkinson in the past (“Behind the scenes at the museum” was a fabulous début, unusual, warm, absorbing) but Case Histories interested me because it managed to be both literary and an easy read. A detective mystery with complex twists and well drawn characters. This is a follow on, which revisits Jackson Brodie, the now retired detective. And, to be honest, it’s ploddy. It is cartoonish in its characterisation of a failed comedian, a rep. actress, a mild mannered crime writer, a corrupt business man, foreign escorts, a hired thug and so on. What has happened?
It keeps making me yawn. Really.

And there are some Ben Eltonesque riffs throughout, the same kind of witty musings that appear dotted throughout Catherine Flynn’s “What was lost”. Is there a trend for this or am I only just noticing because I am a grumpy reader right now, all humphs and tsks?

I keep reading the prose and noticing that yes, Atkinson writes well, but there is something missing. Where is the sparkle? Then I wonder if I am merely assuming that because she has written well she still is. Perhaps she has raced through this without customary care. Or is it the wildly implausible plot? I don’t think it can be. I wonder if it is just the wrong time for this book and me.

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

The front cover of this collection of short stories has one of those Egger quotes on top. He says the book is “incredibly charming, beautifully written, frequently laugh-out-loud funny.” His quote continues on the inside cover and says that fans of “Lorrie Moore should rub this book all over themselves,” which is actually a stupid thing to say when taken literally!
Anyway, I hadn’t heard of July, despite her apparent fame as director of the film ‘You Me and Everyone We Know’ but you my love of Lorrie Moore and Dave Eggers combined to make this a must buy.

(Oh, incidentally, July made a promo for it which was shots of writing on top of her fridge that said basically buy this book. It felt to me like try too hard to be DIY indie cool, and actually put me off.)

It is impossible for me to review the book without using the work quirky. There it is, dammit, this book is a collection of QUIRKY short stories. The snarky short story writer that is me feels bitchy and wonders if I had subbed any of these tales would I have had them placed in McSweeney’s, The New Yorker et al. Or is it just that her achingly cool connections get her the kind of respect I dream of?

So, to the stories themselves. This is where I admit that I was utterly charmed by her voice. Her characters are lonely, uneasy, searching. They are normal people doing normal things that then slide into oddness. There is humour and sadness in them, but there is also an essential feeling of hope.

In ‘I kiss a door’ the narrator tells us in just over 4 pages her discovery of a shocking truth about her friend. July has great skill in choosing just the right words to breezily explain something that could have been laboured and over written and made so much more complex. This is her greatest talent I think, her ability to use dialogue or to invite us in to her characters mind and tell us things with deceptive ease. Several times I thought, wow, that’s so clever.

‘Something That Needs Nothing’ begins with this;
“In an ideal world, we would have been orphans. We felt like orphans and we felt deserving of the pity that orphans get, but embarrassingly enough, we had parents. I even had two.”

I think that gives the flavour of all the pieces, the narrator telling us something personal, a little strange and yet it feels like truth.

On the down side the voice sounds the same no matter who the narrator is supposed to be, but it is an intriguing and eminently readable voice!

There is a slight unevenness to the quality of the stories, I thought some much more effective than others, but it is good, it’s thought provoking, fun and witty. And it turns out that Miranda July is talented and sparkly and thoroughly deserving of her publications and I am just jealous!

Paradise by A.L.Kennedy

Wow!
This is one of those rare, precious times when I have read a book and been blown away by how simply perfect it is. Each word, each phrase, ah, just the right one. This is an author that I knew only by reputation, and now I will always read everything that she writes. What a writer!

So, the story. Well it’s about an alcoholic woman in her late 30’s. It follows her bumpy up and down path as she drinks too much, so much, that it makes her ill, and her family send her to dry out and recover. She has a relationship with a man who also has a drink problem, they find beauty in the glass, the bottle, each other, they also become engulfed in the dark vile side of alcoholism.
It’s more than that of course, it’s about life and disappointment and not fitting into the position the family have decided you should fill, it’s about the mundanity of the day to day grind, it’s about hope and need and the longing to escape from dull jobs. Never has a drink sounded more glorious than when described here, but there’s plenty of grim descriptions of truth.
It’s surprisingly humorous too, and the descriptions of everything from the weather and landscape to the shine of a bottle are spot on. She does dialogue incredibly well too, capturing the drunks slur and jerky speech. Somehow we maintain sympathy for Hannah, the main character, even when she turfs a disabled woman out of a wheelchair!
It’s a wonderful book, and I thoroughly recommend it. It is such a pleasure to discover a supremely skilled writer, I feel rather thrilled.
Here is an extract which showcases in my opinion the finest hungover lift description ever, and gives a wonderful flavour of the rest of the novel.

Which carries me past a last view of Wispy’s vaguely stricken offspring and off on a wavery march for the doorway, then out, a passageway (passageways lead to staircases and lifts, they are my friends), through a fire door and into a foyer complicated with several queues – not helpful – but, yes, here is a lift.
When I stop, the momentum of my thoughts sends them rushing forward, pressing and wetting the backs of my eyes. I raise my key to aid steadier inspection – it is attached by a chain to leaf number 536: fifth floor, then.
And, thankfully, no one else is with me when the doors whump shut and seal me in the queasily rising box. The surrounding walls are mirrored from waist height up which suggests an illusion of space and must be a comfort to claustrophobics, but which also – due to the laws of physics – does have one truly horrible consequence: I can see myself. Not only one’s self, naturally: from a few especially disastrous angles my right selves and my left selves reflect each other unrelentingly. On both sides, I can watch my head diminish along an undulating corridor of shrinking repetitions until I finally coalesce into one last, pinkish drop of light. This aches.
It isn’t fair. All I wanted to do was find 536 and take care of my head, but instead I’m trapped inside this 3-D memento mori – staring at eternity while it howls graphically away, before and after (as if I were an extra in some truly sadistic, educational short), and all that I’m fond of as me is cupped up in this single, staring instant – which isn’t enough. Look at me – this is the only point where I’m recognisable, where I make sense – beyond it, I’m nothing but distortion and then I completely disappear. What is this – a Jesuit lift? I am not at an appropriate moment to be metaphysical. For Christ’s sake, I was only trying to cut out the stairs. I didn’t ask to be forcibly reminded that I don’t want to die, not ever, no thank you very much. I am not well and terrified and I don’t have the room to be either properly.
So I am not in quite perfect condition when the lift shunts open and gives a gloating little ding. Meanwhile,my sweat gets a chance to chill in the passageway where small metal plaques with arrows are waiting for me, all set to suggest hypothetical directions.
543-589, this way: 502-527, that way; 518 over there.
I’m taking little runs to blind ends, finding corridors that loop round on themselves, cupboards, fire escapes, while the floor starts to pitch down quietly beneath my feet, as if I were aboard some ghastly submarine.
The world cannot be as this is, I refuse to accept it.
543-589 this way. But they were that way before.
I deny the existence of this hotel in its current form. I deny the existence of this hotel in its current form.
528, 529, 530 . . . which is encouraging, fairly, I should be okay, it can’t be far –
500.
Bastards.
I deny the existence –
I’m not going to be sick.
I deny the existence of this hotel –
533, 534 –
in its current form.
I deny –
535 . . . 536.
536.
Well, well.
Slowly. Approach it slowly, it may move. Don’t let the key chain rattle, make no sudden cries, but, as soon as I’m ready . . . hold the bloody handle, grab it, key in the lock, key in the lock, right in, in, okay. And.Turn.Turn everything.
The room agrees to be opened and it is, indeed, my room – here is my holdall on its floor, lolling open, and this is my own, my personal alarm clock, ticking primly by the raddled bed: the soft, the horizontal, the wanted bed.There is nothing better than being bewildered and unhappy and very tired and then discovering you have a bed.

The reluctant fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Hmmmmm.
I feel so stupid.
I read this book and didn’t notice that the female character is called Erica, as in America. Dur! And the main character is Changez. Le sigh.
Anyway, this is an interesting book that is highly thought provoking. It concerns a young Pakistani man who leaves his home country for an education at Princeton and a career in New York when snapped up by a prestigious company that require him to learn to assess other companies worth.
The story is told as one side of a conversation taking place in Lahore between Changez and an unknown American man as they share a meal.
The characters voice is polite, educated and somewhat formal. He relates his feelings at the wealthy salary he was paid, and the standard of living he witnessed. He contrasts this with his family and his home. He is at once seduced and repelled by the glamour and consumerism all around. He falls in love with Erica, but she can never be his, remaining firmly in love with her past. Geddit?
When the news of 9/11 unfolds on his news screen he smiles. A life altering reaction to the event.
It is a formally told tale with sufficient tension building as we wonder how Changez ended up back in Lahore, and what is going to happen when he finishes his oral history. I’m not sure that is as powerful as maybe it could have been, but the voice works plausibly and I enjoyed the confounding of my expectations.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

He is one of those authors that I have filed in my mind as writing middle-class white man fiction. I imagine him to be slightly fusty. I don’t know what I’ve based this on, perhaps the customers who seem to buy him. I was lent three of his books several years back, and I did open them, but I couldn’t engage. It’s not that I think he’s a “bad” writer, just not for me. Anyway, I’m such a Steven Page fan girl that when he enthused about “On Chesil Beach” and I saw that it was a slim volume I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a read in one sitting book, and at first seems to be a fairly slight tale about a virgin couples wedding night. It’s worth noting how well written it is, of course I know that he is highly esteemed, but really some of the sentences were so perfectly descriptive I was taken by surprise at how he successfully enabled me to feel for the characters. Edward is worried that he may suffer from premature ejaculation, Florence disgusted by the whole notion of intercourse, even French kissing repulses her, so the story hinges on their approaching physical union. It begins in their hotel room, where McEwan describes an excruciatingly stiff after wedding meal, served by two local lads. We are constantly reminded that this was 1963, just before the onset of sexual liberation and these two, in their early twenties, endure all the rules of the time.
My criticism would be that after such exemplary scene setting we are whizzed back in time to get a back story, and then plunged into the denouement. The end seemed hasty and way too brief, in the vein of …and then this happened and then that and then that’s the end.
I shall have to have another go at some of his back catalogue.

Review of "A lover of unreason"

I said I’d attempt a review of “Lover of unreason”, and now find I have lost the oomph I had to do so. Meh…here’s what I have in my mind about it right now;
I devoured the book purely because I am a Sylvia Plath fan girl. It was intriguing to read a fuller account of the big, bad glamorous woman who Ted left Sylvia for. (Or was he going anyway? We’ll never know.) However the account was nowhere near as complete as I had hoped. Assia Wevill remains sketchy. A great deal of emphasis is placed on various inscriptions in books that she gave Ted and he gave her. This seemed to be in absence of any more concrete findings (letters and journals of hers disappeared as did Sylvia’s) and revealed not much at all.
At various points we are told so and so then attempted suicide…then blah di da happened, as if attempting to kill oneself was really not too big of a deal. I found that extremely odd.
Ted comes out of it all badly. He appears to have gallivanted around sexing up all and sundry with scant regard for any wife/mistress. He was an attractive man, and all describe him as being a huge and magnetic personality. I take with me from this book the knowledge that the first time he had sex with Assia it was so vigorous that he “ruptured” her, she also reported that he smelt like a butcher. Violence (sexual and otherwise) is alluded to in several places, and he apparently was a complete chauvinist which hadn’t quite come across in any of the Sylvia biogs.
Assia fares no better though. She seems vain and cold. She was apparently unmoved by broken hearts and ghosts, concentrating on what she wanted when she wanted. She was undoubtedly beautiful, and used her looks to secure the attentions of men who in turn did favours for her. She was married three times before Ted came into her life, but then as Fay Weldon commented (she was a colleague) feminism hadn’t empowered women then. If it had perhaps neither Sylvia or Assia would have felt the need to be with a man and would have blossomed in Ted’s absence.

It’s all very tragic in the end. Ted Hughes had relationships of huge intensity with Sylvia and Assia and they both gassed themselves, Assia also taking their daughter Shura with her. How that must have destroyed his soul I can’t possibly imagine.

A colleague remarked that it’s all voyeurism and thus utterly distasteful. I understand that feeling and yet I would argue that knowledge of their lives leads to unlocking of their poetry. In their cases (Plath and Hughes) it is essential for a fuller understanding of their intent. Then that leads me to ponder, do many poets work in that way, mentioning little items that the reader cannot possibly guess the significance of? Is that why I find poetry so cloudy in the main? Hmmm. I know I adore Charles Bukowski because of how clear and simple and true his words, yet there is something so bright and amazing about Sylvia’s words that I loved them before I knew what she really meant.
http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/displayProductDetails.do?sku=4973127

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