Longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, Almost English presents the tension and identity crises that occur within a blended, multicultural family. While 16 year-old Marina might identify as English on paper, her family life and heritage is much more complicated. Marina’s mother, Laura, married a Hungarian man named Peter, but his binge drinking and general lack of enthusiasm for family life left Marina fatherless for the majority of her upbringing. And the life of a single mother hasn’t been easy for Laura, either, especially considering that they are still very closely tied to Peter’s family. Marina and Laura have lived with Peter’s mother and her two sisters in a tiny London apartment since Peter’s abandonment, which has propelled them into a sort of cultural limbo.
The Testament of Mary
A Novel by Colm Toibin
2012 / 96 Pages
The Testament of Mary begins rather abruptly, the reader is given no clear time frame as to how many years have followed the crucifixion of her son. It has the feeling that it has started as though we are beginning at the half-way point. Mary’s character and her development and surroundings comes across as though the true development was established in the first 100 pages or so prior to what the reader is privy to.
And then Laura changed the subject and asked Isabel if she thought Kitty Finch might be a little … she searched for the word … ‘touched’? The word stuck in her mouth and she wished she had another language to translate what she meant, because the only words stored inside her were from the school playground of her generation, a lexicon that in no particular order started with barmy, bonkers, barking and went on to loopy, nuts, off with the fairies and then danced up the alphabet again to end with cuckoo.
Swimming Home is a very short book. Short on pages, short on characters and short on catching my interest.
Buried deep under a mess of contractions, grammatical debris, and indecipherable Cockney slang lies a story – a nouveau modernist tale that reads kind of like a hybrid of Dadaism, Faulkner, Eliot, and Dr. Seuss. In Will Self’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, we are introduced to Zack Busner, a psychiatrist at Friern Hospital in London. Busner and his staff primarily deal with victims of Encephalitis Lethargica – an epidemic that spread around the time of World War I and leaves its victims in a catatonic state. Busner has been treating these patients for years with no luck, but eventually, Audrey Death begins to respond to his treatments.
Audrey has been a patient at Friern for longer than Busner has been there, and as she slowly emerges from her catatonic state and the clouds of her mind clear away, Busner is shocked at how difficult and challenging it is to rehabilitate post-encephalitic patients in a modern world. While Audrey has absorbed more of her surroundings than Busner previously thought, most of her thoughts are stuck in the time before her affliction, and it is the hospital staff’s unenviable task to modernize and rehabilitate these Sleeping Beauty patients. After a few weeks of this, Busner begins to wonder if perhaps patients like Audrey would be “better off” if their rotting brains were left alone, but it’s too late to turn back now.
Told in the alternating voices of Audrey and Dr. Busner throughout who knows how many time periods, Umbrella should be a compelling read about war, modernity, sex, gender, experimental medicine, and the lack of accountability in the mental health system – but it’s not. Well, it might actually be about those things, but unless you’re armed with a pretty highfalutin vocabulary, a working knowledge of Cockney accents and London slang, and the 3D decoder from the accompanying Umbrella cereal box, then you might just find yourself completely lost in the literary rain without a literate umbrella.
This review was simultaneously published on Hooked Bookworm
A Novel by André Brink
2012 / 320 Pages
André Brink’s 2012 longlisted novel tells the story of Philida, a slave in South Africa in the mid 1830s. Philida’s story begins with a journey to the slave protector’s office, where she files a formal complaint against her master’s son, Frans. Over the years, Frans has promised Philida freedom in the heat of lovemaking, but has yet to deliver on his word. In the meantime, Philida has given birth to several of Frans’s children, and she is impatient and frustrated. But when Philida files her complaint, she is informed that, because Frans was never her master, he does not have the power to grant her freedom. Only Frans’s father, Cornelis Brink, has such power, but he is an angry, cruel man and does not care about the well-being of Philida or his enslaved grandchildren.
Despite Philida’s low social status, she refuses to take no for an answer and devises her own means of escape and freedom, but not without encountering a great deal of pain and hardship along the way. Told from alternating narrative voices, Philida is a heartbreaking, but inspiring story of one woman’s bravery and determination to achieve freedom for herself and her young children.
The Setup: Swimming Home is a subversive page-turner, a merciless gaze at the insidious harm that depression can have on apparently stable, well-turned-out people. Set in a summer villa, the story is tautly structured, taking place over a single week in which a group of beautiful, flawed tourists in the French Riviera come loose at the seams. Deborah Levy’s writing combines linguistic virtuosity, technical brilliance and a strong sense of what it means to be alive. Swimming Home represents a new direction for a major writer. In this book, the wildness and the danger are all the more powerful for resting just beneath the surface. With its deep psychology, biting humour and deceptively light surface, it wears its darkness lightly. (From the hardcover edition)