A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
The Whitshanks are one of those families that radiate togetherness: an indefinable, enviable kind of specialness. But they are also like all families, in that the stories they tell themselves reveal only part of the picture. Abby and Red and their four grown children have accumulated not only tender moments, laughter, and celebrations, but also jealousies, disappointments, and carefully guarded secrets.
First Impressions: To me the opening scenes with the phone call felt a bit farcical and staged, like I was watching a mid 20th century stage play. I didn’t necessarily dislike this but it did make the book feel as if it had been published a few decades ago. This is typical of Tyler so I wasn’t surprised.
Highlights: The story of surrounding Stem, one of the sons, was intriguing and heartbreaking in measure. The novel followed many strands of the family story and it all tied together well. It is definitely a literary novel rather than a ‘family saga’ despite the fact it follows the same family over a few generations.
If I was an editor: The first thing that would leap out at me is just how similar this novel is in feel and plot to other Anne Tyler novels. This isn’t necessarily a negative as the formula works and it’s a comfortable read with a timeless American (Baltimorean) story. I went through an Anne Tyler phase a few years ago (a big shelf in my local library) and while I enjoyed all the novels and appreciated her plotting and characterisation, they never really grabbed at my heart and affected me. I found A Spool of Blue Thread to be the same; enjoyable but it did not leave a lingering impression.
Overall: A pleasurable read. Perhaps not contemporary enough to win the Bailey’s Prize.
A Spool of Blue Thread: 3 stars
Thank you to Random House (Vintage) for a copy of the title to review.
The Bees by Laline Paull
I recently had laser eye surgery and I downloaded the Serial Podcast to listen to during recovery. Well, I found it so gripping I finished it before my surgery even took place! I then treated myself to an audiobook and decided on The Bees. It’s been on my radar for a while.
Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. But Flora is not like other bees. Despite her ugliness she has talents that are not typical of her kin and she begins to move through the various echelons of the hive.
First Impressions: Unfortunately I kept falling asleep after listening to a couple of minutes of this audiobook. I don’t know if it was the narrator, the story, recovering from a procedure or a combination of all three.
Highlights: The writing style is poetic with rather sensual descriptions of the bees’ scent and vibrations. I sometimes had to remind myself I wasn’t listening to a story about a cult where everyone knows each other’s business to a very personal degree. There was a lot of religious rapture.
If I was an editor: I would hope more people read the physical book rather than listen to the audiobook. The story is full of description and I must admit that the repetitive prayers to the Queen began to bore me. If I was reading it I probably would have enjoyed it more as I would have skim read parts of it to get to the action. Unfortunately I found the action was often lost within description and I would get to the end of a chapter and realise I had completely missed a vital plot point (eg. the ‘dramatic scene’ with the drones, if you believe it) as I had started daydreaming. I did consider giving up at but a biological feat achieved by Flora at one point piqued my interest and I decided to keep listening.
Overall: A bit too lacklustre for me but probably the right ingredients to win the Bailey’s Prize.
The Bees: 2 Stars
How to be both by Ali Smith
Two stories in one: Del Cossa, a forgotten renaissance artist of the 1460s and George (Georgia), a modern teenage girl mourning the death of her mother. Two stories of love and injustice in a circular tale that will leave you wondering.
First Impressions: The version I read had the renaissance story first. I listened to the audiobook of Hotel World when it was published and it was clear to me that Ali Smith writes to be read out loud. Reading Del Cossa’s story was fine but I imagined how brilliant it would sound, particularly the first and last few pages.
Highlights: This is one of those novels that you appreciate even more the day after you finish it. Del Cossa’s story by itself was interesting but not compelling yet pair it with George’s story (the emotional weight of the novel) and it is all sheer brilliance. Stick with it! As other reviews state, your reading experience is unique based on which story you read first, and it is so true! The first character you meet is always the central character in your mind. You can’t unread the story and try from the other perspective. Having two stories vaguely linked like this and published in a random order sounds both predictable, exhausting and pretentious (think Cloud Atlas, perhaps) but instead it is memorable and affecting. Much to my delight, George’s link to Del Cossa’s art is believable and understated rather than awkward and obvious.
If I was an editor: I would question the use of a few of Del Cossa’s turn of phrase, particularly ‘just saying‘ which is also a twitter hashtag. Surely someone should have weeded this out?
Del Cossa’s character and story is actually all imagined by George and her modern slang and obsession with grammar and punctuation ( : ) seep through to the renaissance story…
Yet another reference to being both.
Overall: Well worth the overdue library fee.
How to be both: 5 stars
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
I have adored both of Lahiri’s short story collections and her novel The Namesake is one of the most moving novels I can remember reading. The Lowland was therefore a highly anticipated new release for me but would it meet my expectations?
Brothers Subhash and Udayan are inseparable as young boys, finding mischief in their Calcutta neighbourhood. Udayan is bold and adventurous; Subhash sensible and reserved, following his brother’s shadow. As the two grow older they begin to drift apart; Udayan joins the Naxalite rebellion and Subhash takes an opportunity to study abroad. A single disastrous event will have repercussions for all their loved ones.
First Impressions: The first part of this novel was really hard work. It felt like a history lesson taught by my charisma-lacking Year 10 history teacher. (Seriously, my Year 10 history teacher led us through one term of Indian history.)
Highlights: Lahiri’s writing is as ethereal as you would expect and the novel is clearly a work of literary merit.
If I was an editor: I would wonder if all three main characters had to lead such bleak lives. Did all three have to pursue stoic solitary existences, devoid of all pleasure? Surely one of the three could have bounced along merrily in life or shown some sort of pizzazz. I also felt their was some box ticking with the journey each character took, both traditional (unplanned pregnancy, sexual experimentation) and contemporary (eco-friendliness).
Overall: As much as I wanted to love this novel I found it to be just too much hard work.
The Lowland: 3 Stars
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
I was lucky enough to win a copy of this novel in a competition run by the Bailey’s Prize. I made sure I found time to finish it before the June 4 deadline when the winner will be announced!
This is a story about ordinary Germans in WW2 who do what they can to make the war tolerable. Peter, a German soldier on the Russian front, marries Katharina, a woman he has never met. It is purely a marriage of convenience. He will get leave for the honeymoon and she will be guaranteed a widow’s pension should he fail to return. Katharina’s father finds his own way to make the war more manageable for his family by endearing himself to the well connected Nazi Dr Weinart.
First Impressions: The author writes in sharp prose making this a very readable novel. However, at times the writing was so crisp and devoid of feeling that I felt somewhat detached from the story but I suspect this is how many of the characters felt.
Highlights: The most memorable events in this novel are the most depressing – the stories of both Katharina’s brother and son, the tactics used by the Russians to lure defectors, the fragile minds of soldiers surrounded at Stalingrad… I liked the way the author didn’t date each chapter. Subtle clues would indicate how much time had passed. I had mixed feelings about the ending but the small ray of hope and optimism for the future was wonderful.
If I was an editor: I would perhaps make this succinct novel even shorter. Katharina’s family’s rise to privilege thanks to Dr Weinart didn’t need so much detail, particularly Katharina’s awe at the luxuries now available to her. I didn’t think this needed to be covered in such great detail in both the prose and her letters to her husband. Perhaps these extra pages could then be filled in with detail about Peter’s missing years…
Overall: Magee has managed the almost unthinkable by writing an original WW2 novel that stands out in a flooded market.
The Undertaking: 4 stars
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I absolutely adored both Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun and was thrilled to find time to read Americanah before the Bailey’s Prize winner was announced!
Ifemelu and Obinze are high school sweethearts in Lagos, a place where a foreign passport is a status symbol. As time rolls forward both seek their fortunes abroad; Ifemelu in the USA and Obinze in the UK. Thirteen years later Ifemelu is the successful author of a topical blog and Obinze is a ‘big man’ back in Nigeria. Ifemelu has decided to be like many other successful expat Nigerians and move back herself, shrugging off the doubts that often creep into her mind.
First Impressions: There is something about Adichie’s writing style that draws you in. The novel begins with Ifemelu mundanely waiting for a train to go and get her hair braided. Within three pages Adichie had managed to tell a story everyone could find something to identify with whether they are African, African-American, White American, or White (other).
Highlights: I loved the scenes in the hair salon as it provided a voyeur insight into how hair braiding businesses work! I thought the charcterisation was interesting as Ifemelu’s two American love interests were almost extreme caricatures but they probably needed to be in order for Ifemelu to learn and grow. Interestingly, Ifemelu was often a silent observer herself. I thought that all the high school friends in Nigeria were quite interchangeable but I assume that may have been the point. Adichie indicated that many Nigerian women will compromise their wants to have a ‘big man’ and experience luxury; the shallowness of so many lives has saddened me. I thought the constant conversations people started about charity work they support in Africa quite an accurate sign of the times and loved one character’s comment that doctors aren’t just needed in Africa but also in small northern English towns where hospitals have real staffing issues.
If I was an editor: As a Londoner, I would have loved to read more of the nitty gritty about Obinze’s UK experience! On a more serious note, I did feel the novel was a bit too long. I enjoyed the journey Ifemelu took with her blog as it became inextricably linked with her relationship with Blaine. However, Ifemelu’s reporting on the layers of covert racism had been successfully made earlier in the piece and there was clearly only frustration left in her relationship with Blaine. While people remain in stagnant relationships in real life, I don’t necessarily want to read about it unless it adds to the story. I did also wonder at Ifemelu’s social circles in the USA; is this really a common experience for all university educated African migrants? Finally, I will be honest and say the end lacked the emotional punch I was hoping for.
Overall: Brilliantly written and colossal in scope but unfortunately let down by the ending. Perfect in so many other areas. My pick for the Bailey’s Prize.
Americanah: 4 stars