Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Aap kaise ho.
The good people gathered at Jo’s for the April book club meeting discussed Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. My copy, at least, has a short quote on the cover from Salman Rushdie who enthused “…All you can do is surrender, happily to its power”. I’m sure that all of us would agree that the book had a powerful set of messages and many would agree with the “happy” imperative. As usual there was a lively discussion with a range of opinions being expressed about the book and also the broader subjects of immigration, exploitation, economic slavery, and politics of maintaining the status quo.
Those who were keen on this book agreed that they liked its structure in which the progress of the main characters- three male Indian immigrants to the UK (Avtar, Randeep and Tochi) and a British woman (Narinder)- was regularly paused so that the backstories and other historical elements could be explored. Most felt that this was a rich piece of story-telling in which issues such as stigma, discrimination and the treatment of the “other” were examined. All agreed that this was a rather gut-wrenching novel with the men engaged in the daily grind of finding work and avoiding mistreatment and apathy from others while Narinder was torn between her family and her need to “serve” in the Sikh tradition. The story was made more dramatic because each of the men had dodgy visas and Avtar was in debt to an Indian moneylender with access to ‘enforcers’ in the UK.
There was general agreement that the character of Narinder was well developed although most felt that Tochi was a little underdone. There was also agreement that the characters of Avtar and Randeep were not always clearly differentiated and so it was easy to confuse these two in some parts of the book. Perhaps this was a conscious effort by the author and is a nod to the sea of visa-less immigrants who are all in the same state of flux and desperation. Sahota’s exploration of subjects such as ‘caste’ and ‘class’ was appreciated as was his unrelenting depiction of long-term Indian immigrants as only vaguely sympathetic to their countrymen.
There was some criticism of the writing style used by Sunjeev Sahota which is, more often than not, lacking in prose. For some of us the characters of Avtar and Randeep were unsympathetic; a problem given that their stories occupied so much of the book. Many of us also felt that the ending to the book was abrupt and presented almost as a clumsy afterthought. Basically the narratives of the main characters were suddenly truncated at a point where Narinder’s brother is on the verge of violence (again) and Avtar is about to have his foot amputated, has been prescribed insulin and has some dire medical condition due to earlier surgery to remove a kidney. The book suddenly fast-forwards to the epilogue ten years hence.
The diversity of opinions is reflected in the scores as follows:
Wendy 8; Marion 8; Judith 6; Karen 7; Helen 7; Simon 6; Joanne 6; Jane 7; Charles 6. Average = 6.8.
Sebastian Barry got consistently high praise for his writing from the group, particularly his descriptive passages that captured particular places, events or moods in such a way as to make them entirely real – though they were in fact the addled part-memories of a functioning alcoholic.
Jack McNulty came across as the genial barfly who, through his ability to adapt to almost any situation (as long as he had a pint of whisky inside him). The only situation who couldn’t adapt to was one that involved emotion or empathy or the ability to understand the needs of another person. In the case of his wife and chldren, this was to have catastrophic and lifelong effects on them all.
Barry’s powers of description, which made his writing so powerful, were also (for some) his downfall. Critics felt that, sometimes, the descriptive pieces went just that bit too far, causing some to glaze over a little and speed-certain passages.
Luckily we had some fans of Barry’s work to provide a little background. Knowing that Barry shared a bed with his grandfather, himself a “temporary gentleman” and great storyteller, helped make sense of a lot of the book’s content and narrative style.
And here’s the man himself, reading that extraordinary opening passage. (Wish I’d watched this earlier: it made me rethink Jack as a much more robust character!)
Simon 8, Helen 8, Marion 7, Judith 7, Wendy 8, Karen 8, Jo 7, Suzanne 8, Charles 8, Jane 7, Mark 6. Average = 7.45.
The second part of our double-header, Harper Lee’s “new” book.
Oh dear. I read this “first” book second, and was bitterly disappointed. No other way to put it. The most startling revelation of the night was that the two manuscripts were produced about three years apart. Can that even be possible? Did Lee go to the crossroads and sell her soul to the devil or something?
This was a dull affair: flat characters, turgid dialogue, poor plotting and pace. Obviously not the one that Truman Capote wrote.
Marion 4, Judith 4, Jo 6, Helen 5, Wendy 5, Karen 5, Charles 5, Suzanne 6, Simon 4, Mark 6. Average = 5.
What’s going on with me? I didn’t like it and yet I give it 6? And, scrolling down the blog, I see that I gave We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and 8, and yet this month I couldn’t even remember what it was about?
The first part of our traditional double-header of the Christmas / New Year period: Harper Lee versus Harper Lee.
Which one to read first? We all approached this aspect of the big read differently, and part of the discussion did circulate around how much “order of read” affected the reader’s enjoyment (or not) of the companion volume.
Remarkably, there were a few people present who had made it into late adulthood without ever having read TKAM. Personally, I’ve always been a miserly marker and of the opinion that no book deserves 10 as that leaves you with nowhere to go, but after re-reading Mockingbird I’ve ditched that philosophy. To me, it’s as good as a work of fiction can get.
Marion 8, Judith 8, Jo 8, Helen 8, Wendy 8, Karen 9, Charles 10, Suzanne 9, Simon 8, Mark 10. Average = 8.6
We did have a book that we’d all chosen and agreed upon. But then we all forgot what it was called, and who the author was, and we realised that none of us had actually written it down. How can this happen? Are we really all that dotty? Apparently so.
In its stead we went back to a classic, in this case Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, which claimed the #57 spot in the Guardian’s best novels.
This was one that divided us, not quite evenly. I do think that Charlie needs to write up the report for this one, as the only member who – as a youth – could quote passages at length, a la Python.
Sadly, it didn’t do it for me, but it averaged out moderately well.
Charles 7, Judith 8, Karen 7, Jo 7, Simon 3, Helen 5, Suzanne 7, Marion 5, Mark 5, Wendy away. Average = 6.
What a difference a month makes. We met at Judith’s as poor Jo was indisposed. Thankfully we had a good book to discuss and lift our spirits.
Judith 7; Helen 8; Wendy 6; Simon 8; Charles 6; Karen 7; Mark 8; Suzanne (postal vote) 8. Average = 7.25
A packed house at Helen and Simon’s! When did we last have everyone there? (I could look this up on my phone, but I haven’t got a spare three hours.)
Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations was well received by everyone, the only difference of opinion was whether it was better than Be Near Me or not (majority consensus: it was).
The twin stories of Anne, falling into the abyss of Alzheimer’s in a Scottish coastal sheltered home for the aged, and that of her grandson Luke, a soldier serving in Afghanistan, offers an unlikely coupling at first. But O’Hagan works hard at creating believable worlds; indeed, the world of the soldiers (and their endless nagging, abbreviated banter) was an aspect of the book that everyone felt was strongly executed. Similarly, the push-pull of Anne’s neighbour Maureen, with her needy but barbed relationship with her family was immediately recognisable.
One of our books of the year.
Wendy 7; Charles 7; Karen 8; Helen 8; Judith 7; Simon 8; Jane 7; Jo 7; Suzanne 8; Marion 7; Mark 7. Average = 7.37