Review: The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin

 

IMG_4122Many years ago, Anatoly Sukhanov made a choice. He abandoned his life as an underground artist for money and security. Now, he is being hunted by the ghosts of his past.

When we meet Anatoly Sukhanov in his Russia of the 1980’s, it is a wintery world, filled with memories. He is leading a warm and fuzzy life, has money and a family. But everything changes when he is confronted with an artist that used to be his best friend 20 years ago. Suddenly he is forced to challenge the reasoning behind the choices he has made all over again.

In the beginning Sukhanov states that he doesn’t remember much of his past. He keeps a few isolated memories and therefore creates a curated version of his life that has almost no connection to reality. But through the encounter with his friend from the past, memories keep suddenly overwhelming him. Memories from his childhood, memories from his time as a poor and rebellious artist:

“[…] this stray little thought released in him some echo of the past, a solitary trembling note whose sound rose higher and higher in his chest, awakening inarticulate longings and, inseparable from them, a piercing, unfamiliar sorrow.”

He feels overwhelmed by these memories and is unable to save himself from the emotions that come with each new recovered memory. Oftentimes the memories are triggered by places and the reader is transported to a different time in the life of Sukhanov without much warning. The memories, characters, places and emotions create an eerie and claustrophobic mixture, where sometimes it is not clear what is real and what is not. Could some of the people he encounters be himself at different times in his life?

What I thought was done rather brilliantly in this book was the way that Grushin did not paint a black and white picture of Sukhanov. In many ways his character is quite flawed, he is a proud and opportunistic man where we get to meet him, but nonetheless Grushin got me to really care for him. Also she never simplifies the choices that Sukhanov has and had to make. His struggles are real and valid. When she gives reasoning for his decision to turn down life as an artist, they do not seem like choices that were done without thought behind them. In a lot of ways the reasons Sukhanov gave, made me care more about the character and not less:

“…the only life worth living was a life without humiliation, a free life, a safe life – and the only sure way to avoid having one’s wings clipped was to grow no wings at all.”

Obviously art is an important part of the book. The characters talk about it, they judge it, they create it and different artists are mentioned again and again to show the characters’ changing relationships to art throughout their life. Dali and Chagall play the most important roles here. Grushin also describes how art was perceived in Russia at various times in the last century. To me this opened up a new view on the connection between the artist and the environment that he lives in:

“Our days flowed into nights, our nights were endless and every single windbag who talked about Russia, God and art was a brother, every artist a genius, every painting a miracle – and the world did not know us yet, but we were together, we were brilliant, we were destined to light up the skies […].”

What impressed me most about this novel is the way Grushin writes. Her descriptions are almost like the script for a film, she creates a very detailed (and this in no way meant in a bad way) picture of where the characters are at any given time. The opening of the book is one of the strongest I have read this year. Her writing, clear and precise at the beginning, follows the inner life of her main character. When he finds himself in a swirl of memories, the writing also becomes more surreal. It jumps between timelines without warning and gets experimental where you don’t expect it to be.

The novel is like a painting. The longer you look at it and think about it, the more ways of reading it you can find. On the surface it is a novel about a man and his choices, but it is so much more. It is also a meditation on art and why we create it, what it is that we strife for and how much we are willing to sacrifice for it:

“But you were also wrong, because in spite of all the injustices and horrors and stupidity, beauty always survives and there will never be a higher mission than by adding more beauty to it, by making one single person cry like a child at the age of fifty three.”

Review: The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

IMG_3637The Guest Cat is a short Japanese Novel by the poet Takashi Hiraide. It tells the story of a 30 something married couple that lives in a little alley in a quieter part of Tokyo. One day in the early 1980s their neighbours across the street adopt a stray cat. Soon the cat also starts paying them regular visits in their little garden cottage. Over time, both husband and wife develop a friendship with the cat, which they name Chibi. But then, change happens in all of their lives and the bond they had might be lost forever.

Interestingly, it is only Chibi the cat that has been given a name. All the other characters have abbreviations or are simply called the friend, the husband or the old lady. I thought this was an interesting way of showing how important and special the cat really is. This is especially true for the the main character, the husband. He is going through major life changes almost the same time as the cat enters their lives. He has recently quit his job as a writer and is suddenly, through a series of events, forced to deal with his own mortality:

“Looking back on it now, I’d say one’s thirties are a cruel age. At this point, I think of them as a time I whiled away unaware of the tide that can suddenly pull you out, beyond the shallows, into the sea of hardship, and even death.”

Maybe these life changes have also altered his receptiveness to the world around him, therefore allowing the cat, this new and strange being, to enter his life. The significance of his recent life changes is overlapping with this almost mundane event of a visiting cat. It is like they are influencing each other, one giving meaning and importance to the other. Just as he sees his life in a new light he also sees this cat in a light that he might not have before. This could signify the fluidity of our emotions. How we feel about things, people, and cats is closely linked to our current situation and not only (as we sometimes believe) to the thing itself.

The author hints at the possibility that the novel is autobiographical and the way the story unfolds on the page is as though he was writing down the memories as they arose in his mind He is transporting the reader into one particular moment at one particular time, describing everything that made up this moment, his surrounding and feelings, his thoughts and intentions.

The story spans many years but is set mostly in one place, the cottage and the garden that surrounds it. This place functions as a backdrop to the story. Almost like a theatrical stage, each new memory has a new season, a new set. Hiraide goes to great length to describe in detail these different points of time.

To me what stood out the most was his depiction of the relationship between humans and animals. The wife forms a very close bond with the cat and even goes so far as to equate the relationship to an animal to that to a fellow human:

“For me, Chibi is a friend with whom I share an understanding, and who just happens to have taken on the form of a cat.”

The way that the cat makes the couple question if it ‘belongs’ to them and if it can be shared with the neighbours. The way they love the cat reflects deeper question about what it means to love someone or something. Does loving someone necessarily mean that you ‘belong’ to that other person? And what do you expect in return? The couple discusses these issues, giving way to a deeper interpretation of the meaning of the guest cat:

“Then she told me about a philosopher who said that observation is at its core an expression of love which doesn’t get caught up in sentiment.”

It would be very easy to disregard this novel as a short irrelevant piece with hardly any plot. And that is exactly what I did. But because there was hardly any plot, I was forced to look beyond the usual way of reading and interpreting; instead I had to in a way decode it. I wanted to write a review about how much I had disliked it, because it made me uneasy. But this is of course were I was forced to see the contradiction in my reception of this work. If there is no plot, what is it exactly that is making me feel uneasy? The longer I think about it the less it is a novel about a cat but about mortality, friendship and memory.

Review: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

IMG_3199When Cassandra Edwards, the gay heroine of this 1962 novel, returns to her bohemian family home, a lot of things turn out differently than both Cassandra and the reader might have expected.

The novel opens with a spotlight on Cassandra, who is currently writing a thesis on French female writers at her Berkeley apartment, which until recently she used to share with her twin sister Judith. They shared not only their apartment, their piano and their carefully collected antique furniture but also their life. Over years they had carefully constructed an identity, in which both of them were only half a person, could only be a whole if they were together. But now that Judith has moved away and is about to get married, this identity and life that Cassandra needs so desperately to function is being threatened.

The reader immediately gets a sense of the smart but erratic, lonely and nerve-wrecked Cassandra as she travels home to sabotage her sisters wedding. As she arrives on the farm, set in the foothills of the Sierra, everyone in the family has a part to play. Often quirky, sometimes comical, the interactions follow the well-rehearsed behaviour that the Edwards family has constructed over time. But this façade of interaction is only a thin veil, which covers a much darker truth. Cassandra hides behind a shower curtain, spies on her sister and lies to her grandmother. She also hides her true feelings about the wedding and her new life without her sister. This pain, felt only in secret, will lead to disastrous consequences. Through the possibility of losing Judith, Cassandra has to redefine her whole identity as well. She has to reset the goals in her life. While once plans and decisions were made together, she now has to come to terms with what she herself really wants in life. And this means facing the reality of wanting different things than Judith does:

“Same thing everywhere I’d looked. Large amounts of safety; very few risks. Let nothing endanger the proper the proper marriage, the fashionable career, the non-irritating thesis that says nothing new and nothing true.”

During the course of the novel Baker brilliantly shifts the perspective of one sister to the other to give the reader not only a deeper understanding of the situation but also the unique view of how both of the sisters perceive their bond and relationship. Where Cassandra perceives herself as part of a whole and has not found a way to live without her sister, Judith the emotionally stronger and much more mature of the two, understands that were they to stay together, their union would lead to their destrucion.

To me, reading this novel felt like watching a classic movie. Baker followed the characters, mostly in real time, through their emotional struggles without censoring their experience down to a few selected flashes. Sometimes however Bakers slow paced style requires some patience from the reader. Also the way Baker hinted at Cassandra’s sexuality reminded me of mid-century Hollywood movies. You sometimes had to read between the lines. But even though Cassandra’s sexuality was not as openly discussed as I imagined from the text on the jacket, it is nonetheless a book that features a lot of strong women characters.

I enjoyed reading this book and must say that certain scenes stayed with me long after I had finished it. I appreciated that she allowed the reader to make their own interpretations of the emotional states of the sisters by giving them both very distinct voices.

Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

image2Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life spans 60 years of friendship, love, suffering and hardship in the lives of four friends. There is the handsome actor Willem, the creative and sometimes selfish artist JB, the architect Malcom and finally Jude, the successful lawyer with a lot of dark secrets. They have met at University, when they weren’t successful or rich, but rather living in shitty apartments, going to parties and cheap restaurants. But then careers develop, friendships change and sometimes secrets are revealed. The focus of the novel definitely lies on the relationship between Willem and Jude and maybe even more so on Jude’s past. The descriptions of Jude’s ordeals in the past and his current struggle with it are probably the most horrific things I have ever read. I won’t say too much, as a lot of things are only revealed after many pages, but some of the themes of the novel are violent abuse, addiction, extreme self-harm and crippling illness.

Interestingly, even though this 720-page novel spans 60 years, it is stripped entirely of historical or technological landmarks. The story is focused exclusively on the personal histories of the characters and even though there are some slight references to art and politics it is never enough to link the events in the novel to a specific year. Even though it is mainly a New York novel, there is no mentioning of 9/11, or any political or social event of the city.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is Yanagihara’s treatment of friendship: The role that the four men play in each other’s lives, are often times more important then any other connection they have. They are not only friends but partners, confidants and family. Their friendships are the support system of choice, one that evolves and changes over time:

“They were inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn’t officially recognised by history or immortalised in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining.”

Before starting the novel I was wondering why Yanagihara had chosen to write a book almost exclusively about men. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to connect with the characters. I could not have been more wrong. It took the genius of a female writer to give four men an emotional portrait of their love (and friendship) for one another. And she has through her novel created positive role models (not only) for men.

Emotions run high in this novel, everything is enhanced: love, sadness, cruelty. I do wonder if this extreme way of telling a story is a comment that Yanagihara is making in regard to trends in our current society? Why do I crave such a story? What draws me to that much pain and suffering on the one hand and that much success and money on the other? It wasn’t that the characters did not feel three-dimensional; actually I have seldom felt that characters were actually real people and not mere characters in a book. And yet they were also caricatures of both themselves and people in real life. But is there something in this contradiction? I am not sure why the characters in this book can be over the top and believable at the same time. And I am not sure how emotions can be outrageously excessive and still be the only thing that ever made me feel such a connection at all. It was like Yanagihara opened a door to characters that not very many people have dared to even acknowledge.

This doesn’t mean that I was in any way able to distance myself from the story while I was reading it. The intense emotion I have felt, the tears of sadness, rage and compassion I have cried and the urge to physically hurt characters in the novel because of their wrongdoing was overwhelming. The emotionality in this story was so unusually strong that I couldn’t read the novel in public (I once did, cried a lot and got some odd looks), and sometimes I couldn’t even read it at all. At times I literally could not stop sobbing. I have never felt like this with any other book. Have never cried so much. Never felt so many emotions. Yanagihara never holds back; she drags you through the darkest memories, the scariest thoughts and the loneliest hours. The tragedy that is the life of Jude St. Francis probably transcends all tragedy you have encountered in contemporary literature. And just like the characters in the novel, I felt helpless, forced to deal with issues I usually wouldn’t:

“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”

Here are some selected on articles about A Little Life:

The Subversive Brilliance of A Little Life

‘I wanted everything turned up a little too high’

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara review – unusual, uneven, unrelenting

Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

image1In the novel Luckiest Girl Alive Jessica Knoll takes the reader into the mind of 28-year-old TifAni FaNelli. Told from her perspective, we first get to see the life of present day Ani – as she prefers to be called now – and all the success that comes with it. She has the perfect position at a famous magazine. She is planning her Nantucket wedding to her successful and rich fiancé. And she is almost a size zero. But all these things don’t come easy to her and more importantly they do not make her happy. They are all just part of a façade she has been putting up for years. At the point just before you start to hate her, Knoll confronts the reader with Ani’s disturbing prep school past. And suddenly the glamour of her present day life is contrasted sharply with violence, rape and lots of blood.

Jessica Knoll has written an interesting portrait of a woman who is not your typical heroine. She is not easily approachable, or even likable for that matter. She is not very emotional and goes for things in life that we’ve been taught we don’t need to go for anymore. We, as independent women, should not need a husband to show the world that we are worthy. So why does Ani still go for these things? The answer lies in her troubled past.

One aspect that made Luckiest Girl Alive important to me was the treatment and definition of rape. Ani goes through different phases in the novel. First there is denial (and laughing at her rapists jokes), followed by trying to get back in control and finally confronting her past head on. The reactions that people have to Ani’s rape vary greatly. Some blame her, others don’t even see it as rape and very few help her deal with it. I think the important and central point that Knoll is making, is that rape is always rape. And the responsibility always lies with the rapist, never the victim.

Luckiest Girl Alive is a smart and unconventional novel with a story that may seem unusual but is based partly on the author’s life. I didn’t see all the twists coming and I couldn’t figure out Ani’s character until the very end. I liked the way the story was told through flashbacks and I also thought the statements that Knoll made about sexual consent are quite important. Ani was a difficult and complicated character to be with. But you don’t have to like her, you just have to listen.

Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings

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A brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James wasn’t really brief and contained far more than seven killings. I must say that this was not an easy read. Told by numerous characters (mostly in Jamaican patois) the story that unfolds over 688 pages of fine print consisted of a lot of bloody gang violence, political turmoil and the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. I had my difficulty with this novel, especially the language was extremely hard to understand and I felt that I would have to read it again, just to understand it in its total complexity. There were definitely some characters that I really cared about and whenever it was their turn to speak I was fully engaged with the story. Also, the author managed to paint a very authentic (or so i assume) picture of Jamaican politics. I am definitely looking forward to the HBO series that is being created based on this novel, I think it could be great. One quote that stood out:

“Who want peace anyway when all that means is that you still poor?”