Month: September 2014

2014 Longlist: The Blazing World

18143974The Blazing World was a very unique novel – Hustvedt has created an entirely fictional character yet has written of her as though she were a fully-realized person. The reader fully expected Harriet Burden to be an actual person that blazed bright in the art world. We discover everything about Harriet and her fight to expose sexism in the art world, through personal journals, articles and notebooks, to accounts from those in the art world, her family members and people that have interviewed her over the years. We even have the use of footnotes providing further detail and information about Burden’s work and those that influenced her.  It was so utterly unique to me and I quite enjoyed embarking on this journey.

Harriet Burden is pissed that women, and most especially her work, is not considered or widely appreciated as those created by her male counterparts.

“Although the number of women artists has exploded, it is no secret that New York galleries show women far less than men. The figures hover around twenty percent of all one-person shows in the city, despite the fact that almost half of those same galleries are run by women. The museums that exhibit contemporary art are no better, nor are the magazines that write about it. Every woman artist faces the insidious propagation of a male status quo. With no exceptions, art by men is far more expensive than art by women. Dollars tell the story. After giving up on a public life as an artists, Burden decided to experiment with the perception of her work through the use of masculine personas. The results were striking. When presented as the work of a man, her art suddenly found an enthusiastic audience. (taken from Rosemary Lerner’s written statement.)

When opening the first pages of The Blazing World we are treated to an excerpt from the Editor that is writing this account of Harriet Burden. Here she explains how Harriet “used” three men to show three very different shows in art galleries. Each was met with resounding success and only after her death is it revealed that it was actually the work of a woman, Burden’s work. Henceforth, the countless articles written either denouncing, disproving and exposing what Harriet called her experiment.

However, as unique as Hustvedt’s own literary experiment was, for me there were moments when I began to skim through it, as the number of written statements and journal entries, etc., continued to increase, yet nothing new seemed to be added to the story. I will say however that I found The Blazing World to be one wonderful and very interesting read. I quite fell in love with Harriet. I also quite fell in love with Siri Hustvedt for creating and envisioning this remarkable woman. While the literary style used may not suit many, I thought it remarkable. 3.5 stars.

As Harriet is in her final days she continues to say great and wonderful things, and these pages were wonderful to read: “I have more to do. There are undiscovered worlds inside me, but I will never see them.”

“I, Harriet Burden, know I am going to die, and yet a piece of me refuses this truth. I rage against it. I would like to spit and scream and howl and punch the bedclothes, but these demonstrations would hurt this frail skeleton with its few putrid remaining organs far too much.”

Sadly, The Blazing World did not make the 2014 Shortlist. This is one I would have thought would have made the cut over a couple others that did, but what would the Man Booker’s be without some twists and surprises right?

This review was posted simultaneously on the Literary Hoarders.

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2014 Longlist: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Flanagan UK hc    Flanagan AUS

On Tuesday, September 9th, the titles that will move on to comprise the Man Booker Shortlist will be announced. I fully and wholeheartedly expect The Narrow Road to the Deep North to be firmly positioned on that list.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North will leave you stunned and deeply moved, or at least, it did me. I was left breathless on many more than just one occasion. There are so many wide and varied feelings you will experience, ones that swing your emotions from the more visceral and astonishing moments over to the heartrending, profound and beautiful ones. There are any half dozen sentences or paragraphs that could be included here to best show the power and gift Flanagan wields with his words. There are so many, really you could simply open the book to any page, point blindly and then bask in their beauty.

I’ve selected this one below to give an example of the more beautiful and profound, although I can’t tell you this is the most powerful one, it was just the one that struck me as wonderful at that point when reading it:

And Dorrigo realised he might never see Amy again. And with this knowledge, he knew he would have to work, to operate, to go to bed and rise again and live, and now go wherever the war took him, without another soul knowing what he carried deepest in his heart.

And here is but one mere example of the more visceral, however it is probably best read again in the context it was presented, and this one was made after one of those moments where I was left gasping for air:

… he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, an all human history was a history…

The dedication at the front of the book, “to prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)”, is Flanagan’s way to honour his father, an Australian POW during WWII, and as Goodreads reviewer (Jill) states: “The Narrow Road is based on an actual event: the building of the Thai-Burma death railway in 1943 by POWs commanded to the Japanese. The title comes from famed haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s most famous work and sets up a truism of the human condition: even those who can admire the concise and exquisite portrayal of life can become the agents of death.”

It is an incredible story that continuously applies direct punches to the gut over and over again, but it also presents, and does quite sympathetically so, all/both sides, and at its very heart it is a great love story: in the first pages, a love story to Dorrigo’s one true love but then also for the love of these men that he shared this astonishing experience with.

Dorrigo is the main character, is a surgeon operating in the POW camp assigned to help build the death railway. He tells his/their story through a series of back and forth tales, from the past, to the time spent in the camp and to his present, old man self.  What gives this book such great power and integrity is that Flanagan does not present sides or is more sympathetic to the Australian prisoners, or point fingers or encourages hate against the Japanese, instead he so skillfully shares all experiences, of the Australian men beaten, starved, tortured, brutalized in the POW camps but also of the Japanese and Korean men in charge of the POWs. Great time and patience is also taken to show the life for all of the men involved in the camps (prisoner and soldier), during and following the war and also extends to beyond their return home.

It was incredible. I don’t think I can say anything more generous than that. At times it left me shaking and I’m sure the expression I wore on my face during the more tortured moments was one of twisted pain, but it was a beautiful, beautiful story too. The Narrow Road to the Deep North handles itself with incredible strength and integrity and is an exceptionally well-deserved contender for this prestigious literary award. 4.5 stars.

(This will be simultaneously posted on the Literary Hoarders site)

Also, thanks to Knopf Publishers as they did send an advanced reading copy/galley of this book well before it was nominated for the Man Booker. Much appreciated.)