Monday, May 25, 2009

Reviews from Independent on Sunday 24/05/09

Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love and War by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, £8.99) *****
The harrowing story of Owen Matthews’s mother, Lyudmila Bibokov’s childhood in Stalinist Russia almost overshadows the sequel to that childhood: the intrigue and danger that accompanied her later relationship with Matthews’s father, a Welsh-born student of Russian, on a trip to Moscow.
But any romance comes an inevitable second to the tale of Lyudmila and her sister, Lenina, ‘orphaned’ after her father, a rising star in Stalin’s government, was whisked off by the authorities and forced to confess to crimes against the Party, crimes he hadn’t committed. The world of Orwell’s 1984 is horrifyingly evoked by the trumped-up charges, the authorities’ lies to his wife, Martha, about when he would be released (he was shot, but his family wouldn’t find that out for years), the men arriving in black in cars in the middle of the night, the subsequent sudden removal of Martha (taken to serve a ten-year sentence in Siberia) and the depositing of the girls in an orphanage. No recourse to appeal; no voice raised to defend them: the acceptance of tyranny is almost as terrifying as the tyranny itself.
Matthews’s search through the appalling bureaucratic nightmare all these decades later for what really happened to his grandfather is heroic but he isn’t blinded by family loyalty to the increasing starvation and murder of peasants in the build-up to the infamous ‘purges’ that his grandfather at best either ignored or at worst, actually endorsed before his arrest. A great deal of family heart-ache is faced here, a microcosm of what was happening in the country at large. But Stalin’s death was his mother’s chance – she won a place at Moscow University and met Matthews’s father, a quiet, bookish man from the valleys with a love of all things Russian. Their struggle to be together is another relic of the Soviet age, less obviously terrifying to read but no less compulsive.

The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer (Faber, £7.99) ****
Greer’s writing has an ease and a delicacy about it that belies the tormented emotional lives of his protagonists in this story of race and homosexuality in 1950s San Francisco. Pearlie has married her childhood sweetheart, Holland, even waiting for him until he has returned from the war, and has given him a much-loved son. They live quietly in a newly created suburb of the city, working hard and rarely talking to one another: a quietness, Pearlie wants to believe, that comes from contentment, not estrangement. But one day a stranger arrives at their door, as strangers often do in suburbia, to disturb their calm: Buzz, a friend of Holland’s who was with him in the war. As Greer expertly unravels the history of both these men’s wartime experiences, we see Pearlie forced to deal with truths she’s unconsciously been avoiding for years. While the particular race and homosexual strands of this story could perhaps only have been set before the Sixties, Greer’s underlying point about the complacency in which human beings indulge towards one another, their necessary belief that they know all there is to know about the person they love, could be made at any time.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke (Windmill, £7.99) ***
This is one of those novels that begins with the kind of energy and confidence that picks you up and wings you along, only to leave you struggling to get free when said energy and confidence become a bit too much. Sam Pulsifer has finished ten years in prison for setting fire to Emily Dickinson’s home – something he claims was an accident – during which two people, who’d crept up stairs to have sex on Emily Dickinson’s old bed, unfortunately met their demise. Yes, the humour is decidedly black, which increases as Sam’s nemesis, the dead couple’s son, tracks him down now that he’s free and happily married with a couple of kids, and threatens to expose him. Sam lies to his wife to cover for the truth, flees back to his parents and somehow ends up incarcerated for the same old crime – setting fire to a writer’s home – all over again. There’s an existential nightmare going on here, with Sam unable to escape his fate, no matter what he tries to do, but the way Clarke is forced to twist and contrive in order to give fate the upper hand is unconvincing and began to irritate me long before Sam landed back in prison.

Isabella de Medici by Caroline P. Murphy (Faber, £9.99) ***
Isabella de Medici was the daughter of Cosimo de Medici, a cousin of the infamous Catherine. Catherine de Medici was feared as a mistress of the black arts, a woman who rose to power by nefarious means, a plain woman in an age when only the very rich or the very beautiful made any impact on the world. Her relation, Isabella was both rich and beautiful, and much adored by her powerful father, too. But she also had a dark side, getting implicated in murder and in turn, herself being murdered, probably by her own brother. It’s the kind of tragic, convoluted, passionate story we expect of one of the de Medicis, and Murphy’s clear, detailed narrative doesn’t disappoint, although I think we’re still left with a more shadowy woman at the end than might have been the case. Isabella married a man who consorted with prostitutes and wasn’t above giving her a good slap, although this didn’t prevent her having two children by him and keeping herself busy with artistic projects. The deaths of two favourite brothers and her mother in one year must have had a huge impact on her, although, as Murphy argues, it was the death of her father, her protector, that really sealed her fate.

Salvage by Jane F. Kotapish (Faber, £7.99) **
It seems ungenerous in the extreme to put down a debut novel but I found the reliance of kooky, pithy observation after kooky, pithy observation as a novelistic structure, extremely unengaging here. Kotapish is trying too hard from the first line and it’s taken her focus away from what matters. Her unnamed narrator enjoys a tricky relationship with her mother, who suffered a miscarriage while with a man called Charles, when the narrator was very young. The mother seems never to quite have got over it; the daughter, possibly to escape it all, leaves for New York as soon as she can. While there, she witnesses a death on the underground – at least, I think she does. The moment is recalled in poetic terms, the assault on both the narrator and then on another bystander, rendered a ‘dance’, which makes it difficult to tell what actually happens. As a result of romanticising this event, Kotapish has a problem making us understand and empathise with her protagonist’s subsequent breakdown, because it simply doesn’t look as awful as it should have. This feels dishonest somehow, and while that might be because she wanted to show her character’s inability to face what has happened, it’s a misjudgement that seriously affects her story.

No comments:

Post a Comment