Thursday, 29 August 2013

Book Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Title: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Year Published: 1985
Genre: Contemporary fiction, Lesbian fiction, Bildungsroman

The 1991 Introduction to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit describes the novel as experimental, threatening and comforting all at once. The book is said to offer “a complicated narrative structure disguised as a simple one”. It “exposes the sanctity of family life as something of a sham; it illustrates by example that what the church calls love is actually psychosis and it dares to suggest that what makes life difficult for homosexuals is not their perversity but other people’s. Worse, it does these things with such humour and lightness that those disposed not to agree find that they do.” The Introduction also tells us that “[i]n structure and in style and in content Oranges was unlike any other novel” and that its story “has broken down many more barriers than it has reinforced.”

Oh, and did you know? The Introduction was written by the author herself.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, she may very well be right about all of these things, but there’s still something off-putting about it all – she brings to mind that guy you know who spouts his opinions as fact and worse, is somehow always right. My impression of the author, from reading the Introduction, was one of great arrogance. Sadly, this impression was to colour my subsequent reading of the book.

That said, I started off liking Oranges a lot. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s upbringing in a fiercely evangelical Pentecostal family in the UK. The narrator Jeanette has been adopted because her mother wishes to dedicate a child to God, meaning that Jeanette is essentially raised to become a missionary. Her childhood exposes her to her deeply religious mother, her mother’s friends and enemies, and the beliefs of her church. The author has a light touch with her words, using clear language – sorry, that is to say, a “beguilingly straight-forward syntax” – which gives a real child-like innocence and freshness to the book. There’s a quirkiness and humour that touches everything as well – for example, her mother’s vendetta against Next Door, the episode where Jeanette goes deaf and everyone thinks she’s filled with “the Spirit”, and Jeanette’s confusion at her teacher’s failure to appreciate her craft project, which involves cross-stitching the words “THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED.”

About halfway through the story, the narrator reveals herself to be a lesbian. Since I’d heard this novel described as “that orange lesbian book”, I wasn’t surprised; what did surprise me was how suddenly it came about. Her childhood is pretty much asexual then bam, she’s attracted to the ladies. That fact that 1) homosexuality is mentioned and 2) the cast is mostly female (indeed, Jeanette’s father is almost a nonentity) doesn’t count as foreshadowing, not really. When her sexuality emerges, Jeanette doesn’t even question it. She accepts her “Unnatural Passions” pretty easily and only shows confusion and anger when, surprise, surprise, the people at her church do not approve. The way it’s written is in character, I suppose, but I’d expected a little internal conflict or reflection at least, given her religion and all. Whatever the case, it doesn’t happen.

As the book goes on, it veers a bit into magic realism with the appearance of an orange demon. I found this a bit jarring and unnecessary, almost as if it had been put in for quirkiness’ sake. The book also incorporates within it various asides and allegories which carry a distinct fairy-tale mood. I found this charming at first, but over time, they increased in both frequency and abstraction. The chapter ‘Deuteronomy’ is just the author philisomaphising on the nature of history. I found it all a bit excessive and the further I read, the more I was reminded of the Introduction. There’s so much ~symbolism~ (with passages reflecting on themes like perfection, change and so on) that the latter part of the book reeks of self-indulgent literary pomposity. The high (low?) point for me comes on p110, with these profound words:

It is the nature of stone to convert bone.
At one time or another there will be a choice: you or the wall.
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
The City of Lost Chances is full of those who chose the wall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men.
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

At this point, I had to resist the urge to throw the book across the room.

I mean, this sort of thing might be your cup of tea, and more power to you. It certainly isn’t mine. For me, the value added by these sorts of passages is but a candle to the giant sun of the author’s ego that shines through the same. Perhaps things would have been different if I’d never read the Introduction, but I’ll never know. As it is, it feels like the author added these bits chiefly to show how intellectually enlightened she is. The story could have easily worked without them. And frankly, for a novel with “interests [that] are anti-linear” that’s meant to be “read in spirals”, I didn’t find the structure all that amazing (it’s pretty much chronological with allegorical asides inserted) – nor was it particularly groundbreaking: there are plenty of modernist novels that have weirder/awesomer timeline/point-of-view shenanigans going on. To all those kids who have to analyse this for school: my heart goes out to you poor sods, it really does.

As for what remains of the actual story, well, we see Jeanette dealing with the fallout that comes from her lesbianism being revealed. I’m not sure if she becomes more unlikeable because she actually does unlikeable things (especially with her bitterness towards her ‘first love’), or because I was biased against her due to all the heavy-handed symbolism in the narrative. The book ends somewhat abruptly and I would have liked to see a more rounded finish. This is not to say there has to be a resolution as such, but the way it’s written feels like it was cut off partway through a chapter. Then again, maybe I just failed to appreciate the “spiral narrative” of the book.

I cannot fault the writing; I really enjoyed the style, which was simple and elegant with a pleasing rhythm. I also enjoyed the story of Jeanette’s life, with its humour and quirks and its observations on the church. It was engaging and fun, with a real sense of warmth. After a while though, the symbolic crap started to cloud over everything else, and having read the Introduction, my impression wasn’t so much “Woah mind blown! Deep author is deep!” as it was “Wow, can you get any more pretentious?”.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is indeed a threatening novel. If you happen to be in the same room as me while I’m reading it, you must accept the implicit threat of bodily harm caused by my throwing of the book. Don’t worry too much though, it’s less than two hundred pages and I have weak arms. And more likely than not, I won’t be throwing it – as I said, it’s a mostly enjoyable read.

Alex’s Rating: 3.5/5

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Book Review: Pull of the Yew Tree

Title: Pull of the Yew Tree (The Chronicles of Crom Abu #1)
Author: Pauline Toohey
Year Published: 2013
Genre: Historical fiction, Drama, Romance

Set in 15th century Ireland, Pull of the Yew Tree tells the story of three rival clans: the Fitzgeralds, the O’Byrnes and the O’Tooles. Brought together in an uneasy alliance, they must deal with local Irish rebels, the English conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster, each other and themselves. Amidst this political minefield, there’s also a love story: Jarlath Fitzgerald and Ainnir O’Byrne fall swiftly and deeply in love, but events conspire to keep the two apart.

There’s so much happening during period of history that it’d be easy to lose track of what’s going on and who everyone is, especially if you (like me) know next to nothing about the War of the Roses. However, the author narrows the focus down to a couple of conflicts – some political, some personal – so by and large it’s easy to follow. One thing I liked was how the author included a character list at the beginning to indicate which characters were fictional. The blurb sort of makes Pull of the Yew Tree sound like a dramatic retelling of historical fact, but it’s more historical fiction than anything else. At any rate, the book is mostly about Jarlath and Ainnir (both fictional), so if you’re after a young, passionate and aching sort of romance in a historical setting, this could be the book for you.

The characters and their relationships with one another are easily the best part of the novel. They all have distinct, vibrant personalities and it’s hard to not sympathise with them. The Jarlath/Ainnir romance felt really fresh to me; I normally dislike “love at first sight” kind of set-ups, but in this case, it felt natural. Both characters can be somewhat stereotyped – Jarlath as the loveable rogue turned brooding hero, Ainnir as the feisty young princess – but they make a very lively pair and it’s hard not to like them. I will mention that I think their main problem could have easily been resolved with a few conversations, but I’ll give it a pass for now. You want them to find their happy ending and I found myself reading the book for the romance rather than the political intrigue.

On that note, if you’re after some juicy political intrigue, you might be somewhat disappointed. Since the focus is on the Fitzgeralds and the O’Byrnes, there’s not much on the other Irish clans, and the Yorkist/Lancastrian conflict remains largely distanced and strangely separated from the smaller scale conflicts at hand. Personally, I would have liked more intrigue. As it is, there’s only enough to show that conflicts exist, but not enough to give them meat. The politics feel superficial even when they come to the fore – for example, (spoiler) when Jarlath goes to England, I didn’t really get what he was actually doing there and why, other than some vague sense of fighting for York (/spoiler). Similarly, some of the characters’ reasons for doing things don’t quite feel fleshed out. We have some characters change their minds or make decisions all in the space of a few paragraphs, where the change seems to have come about because the plot required it, rather than because of any deeper sort of motivation.

The broad-strokes approach to historical fact allows you to fill in the gaps as you please, which may or may not be a good thing for lovers of historical fiction. I’m no history buff myself, so I can’t say how accurate the book is. The only thing that caught my eye was the presence of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” in Earl Thomas’ library – “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, I’m assuming, being a translated version of the 14th century classical Chinese text of the same name. I mean, I guess it’s not physically impossible for such a thing to exist in the library of a 15th century Irish Earl, but it is highly implausible, so, if you’re a history pedant, you might want to take note.

Most of the narration is written in neutral prose, with the occasional foray into lyricism. The best examples of this come in the rich descriptions of the setting, with its rolling hills and green forests, and the various literary and mythical references to figures like Tristan and Isolde. While I appreciated a pretty turn of phrase here and there, I wasn’t sure if they were always used to best effect. Sometimes they added to the atmosphere, other times they felt like dead weight cluttering up the story. Overall, however, I thought the descriptions were done nicely, and that the author evoked a sense of place very well.

For me, the main problem with the writing occurs in some of the dialogue, which sometimes gives the impression of Ye Olde Englishe – and not in the Shakespearean way, but the way where it feels like someone is trying to give an impression of Ye Olde Englishe. At other times, the dialogue was a bit more modern or neutral, which I preferred, and which was more consistent in tone with the rest of the book. At other times still, there was a bit of “show your research” going on, and gratuitous facts were added, sometimes in an almost textbook tone. The narration, in third person, also jumps from character to character, sometimes between paragraphs, and this confused me more than once. There were a few times where we get inside a character’s head and the next paragraph begins with “Eyes looked to the sky” or something similar, where it turns out that said eyes belong to the narrating character. I’m not sure if I just got used to it or whether it evened out, but I noticed these things less as I got towards the end.

I’d be lying if I said I never judge a book by its cover, and I totally judged this book for its use of Papyrus (though I’ll hasten to add that my dislike of Papyrus has no bearing on my rating). A word of warning: the cover image may give you the impression that the book is Young Adult, but I wouldn’t quite say it falls into that category, given the loose references to sex. The book also has a nice velvety feel and is without a doubt the nicest feeling book I own. My other cover-related complaint concerns the publisher’s logo on the back, which looks suspiciously like it was created using Microsoft WordArt, the likes of which you may remember from PowerPoint presentations circa 1998. Now, I understand that it’s an independent publisher, that there may be budget constraints, and that it’s not related to the actual content of the book itself, but this sort of thing projects a lazy and unprofessional sort of image, which is not a good look for either the publisher or its authors.

Pull of the Yew Tree is Pauline Toohey’s debut novel, and I get the sense she’ll only improve over time. Parts of the book fell a bit flat for me – namely, the “nakedness” of the plot and the occasional changes of heart or events that didn’t quite convince. Another problem for me was the patchy writing, though as this is a debut novel, it seems like the sort of thing that will even out in future. For these reasons, there were times I didn’t want to pick the book up again after having put it down. The strength in this book lies in its characters, as well as the atmosphere the author is able to evoke; hopefully the next book in the series will demonstrate stronger writing and delve further into the politics underlying the setting.

Alex’s Rating: 2.5/5

(Disclaimer: I received this book for free through Goodreads’ First Reads.)

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Book Review: Cat's Eye

Title: Cat’s Eye
Author: Margaret Atwood
Year Published: 1989
Genre: General and literary fiction, Contemporary drama

Elaine Risley returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her paintings. As she navigates her way through the city, she ruminates on her past – from her carefree childhood and tortuous experiences at school through to her adult life as an artist. Cat’s Eye is the sort of story where it’s less about what happens next and more about immersing yourself into the memories of the narrator, experiencing, for a while, life through the eyes of another.

Elaine’s early childhood evokes both joy and melancholy. It’s an almost idyllic time, where the Risley family travel around WWII-era Canada and most of Elaine’s time is spent running and playing in the woods with her brother Stephen. However, there is a pall over the whole proceedings, for we know it won’t last.

Elaine’s troubles begin when the family settle in Toronto. Introduced to the world of little girls, she finds herself partaking in their rituals and eventually becomes a victim of bullying. The author captures very well that particular brand of nastiness that can come from young girls, which makes this portion of the book especially painful to read. It’s realistic, distressing, and potentially triggering for those who have undergone similar experiences in real life. Worse, Elaine thinks of her tormentors as her friends. She notes that 
“[h]atred would have been easier. With hatred, I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.”
The cruelty of children – and, as we later discover, of adults – is something against which Elaine is powerless. We want to save her, but as readers, we’re as impotent as she is. It makes you wonder: what would you do if your child were in this situation? The only consolation is that with Elaine as a present-day narrator, we know her suffering, at least, has an end.

When Elaine enters adulthood she takes control of her life. A consequence of this is that the book becomes much less stressful to read. At the same time however, I found myself losing sympathy for Elaine. While she does things, the reasons behind her actions are sometimes not explored; it’s as if a veil has suddenly been drawn between her and the reader. Elaine the adult is strangely passive; her affair with her professor, for example, is something that sort of happens to her, rather than a relationship in which she actively participates. I also didn’t really get a sense of why she becomes an artist and nor did I “feel” her art. Her surreal paintings, though obviously related to her past, are never explained directly. I can understand why she paints Mrs Smeath, for example, but I would’ve liked to know how she made the more particular artistic choices, like why she chose to paint Mrs Smeath in various states of undress, why she chose to paint her former lovers nude, why she painted those lovers with a woman (herself?) bearing a glass sphere head, and so on. It’s not that these things have to be explained – and some may prefer that they aren’t – but the deliberate opacity between art and artist is something I found frustrating given how deeply Elaine’s experiences are previously described.

Elaine’s relationship with the sexes is an important aspect of the book. To put things simply, Elaine sees boys as her “secret allies” and prefers the company of men. Her childhood goes some way to explaining why she doesn’t like other women and it’s easy to understand her callousness towards Cordelia as an adult – yes it’s mean, but it’s also human. What’s annoying though is the fact that Elaine – well into adulthood – seems aware of her prejudices, yet continues to lump all women into various categories of “other”.

Pictured: Elaine Risley

The strangest part of this is how she joins those meetings of female artists. It’s hard to fathom. If she dislikes women and finds it so hard to relate to them, why join at all? It’s unclear whether she’s trying to be part of the “sisterhood” or whether she’s there to promote her art or whether it’s something else entirely. When we’re introduced to the group, Elaine is already there, telling us what she thinks of the others. There’s nothing about why she’s there in the first place. Again, I found this lack of information – this lack of why – frustrating rather than pleasantly intriguing.

I can’t help but see the whole situation around Elaine’s retrospective as reflective of Margaret Atwood’s own experience as a poster child for feminism. Elaine rails against a journalist’s attempts to elicit some sort of feminist interpretation of her paintings, but in the end, accepts that other people will impose their own meanings on things, appropriating her art to their own ends. It’s an interesting critique and as valid as it is, in this particular case I feel as if Elaine’s irritation is largely self-inflicted – she pretty much lets these misunderstandings happen (those arty farty painting titles don’t exactly help), then complains about being misunderstood.

Cat’s Eye isn’t exactly an enjoyable read, but it’s worth reading. The book is achingly tender and at times outright painful. If you’ve had an “ordinary” life of first world problems, you’ll probably find something here to remind you of your own childhood – anything from the sort of bullying described to schoolyard games of marbles to the collecting of silver cigarette papers (for the purpose of making some future amazing thing). There is a haunting, nostalgic quality to the narrative, especially when it comes to descriptions of Elaine’s family. The novel is beautifully written and vividly detailed, with narration so eloquent that it seems a pity Elaine’s not a writer. Whether or not you like Elaine, whether or not you agree with her actions, it’s hard not to be touched by her experiences. Cat’s Eye is the sort of book that reaches into your chest and squeezes. Recommended.

Alex’s Rating: 4/5