Daily Archives: August 14, 2011

Book Review: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Title: The Easter Parade
Author: Richard Yates
Publisher: Vintage Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 978-0099518563
Pages: 240
Price: £7.99
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

The Easter Parade can be seen as a bleak novel in that great swathes of sadness, loneliness and ugliness permeate through the protagonists’ lives. Much of this is due to Yates’s simple, matter-of-fact style. He relates the story in a no-frills way, so that the utter pointlessness of life pokes through like a bony white toe through a threadbare sock. He rarely dwells on events and in many ways skims over the joys – motherhood, aunthood, love, friendship – that punctuate life. Seen from this vantage point, any life might appear bleak: the bitter-sweetness of childhood, the disappointment of finding that noone is perfect, the vileness of physically and emotionally cruel people, serial monogamy which, if a person ends up single, can be seen pessimistically as a series of failures, the ant-like way we live, scurry around and then die. That Yates manages to make the novel not only readable but also mesmerising is testament to his powers as a story teller. In Yates’s hands, less does mean more, his pared-down style and conscious absence of literary gymnastics resulting in story-telling that is simultaneously easy to digest and hugely satisfying.

The story follows the lives of two sisters, Sarah and Emily Grimes, daughters of divorced parents, born in 1921 and 1925 respectively. Growing up with their flighty mother with occasional visits to their idealised father, they are very different. Sarah embraces conventionality and settles down early for what she hopes is an idyllic life with English public school-educated Tony who, to her infatuated eyes, looks like a young Laurence Olivier. Emily is spikier and more independant; she samples sex before marriage and decides she rather likes it, so she follows a more (for the time) daring route in life, working and having serial relationships with men. But long-term happiness is elusive for both sisters. Throughout their lives, they keep in touch, and their sisterly relationship is as complex as sibling relationships can be, their undoubted mutual love coloured with swirls of jealousy and intolerance.

The simplicity of Yates’s style is in many ways deceptive – huge themes are tackled, but with a touch so light that the ensuing thought-process is largely the reader’s. This works well – rather than being force-fed processed emotions like a foie gras goose with purreed nutrients , the reader bites the crisp, uncluttered text and thinks for themselves. When Yates writes of Emily meeting her father for lunch ‘she thought he looked surprisingly old as he came down the steps, wearing a raincoat that wasn’t quite clean’, he encapsulates succinctly the shock many people feel when they first become conscious of their ageing parents’ impending mortality and their fallibility.

Perhaps the book’s blackness is in part due to Yates’s refusal to give in to sentimentality – he doesn’t describe the little joys that characterise the good parts in a relationship or life, so that the reader is left with a skeletal sketch of the failures of each. But peering through the dark, I did catch glimpses of hope. For all Tony’s grim, bigoted, veiled thuggishness and the joylessness of two of his sons, his and Sarah’s middle son Peter is a ray of light, a kind, sensitive person who responds to Emily’s reaching out. Even at the end, after Emily’s bitter outburst, he is willing to welcome her into his home – the book’s first suggestion of unconditional affection for a long time.

The thing that made this novel so sad, yet so very moving at the same time, was the fact that each sister was miserable with how their life turned out yet, they envied the life that the other one had. Although I never had a sister, I felt deeply for the Grimes sisters, and rooted for each of them at different times. Themes of how early promise can erode is most evidenced by how Sarah’s once-promising and beautiful life morphs into something straight out of a very sad movie. She clings to her early dreams of how things should be by resisting any kind of change; the brutality and ugly moments in her life are glossed over in her own mind, reminding us that nothing changes without our own desire to make that happen.

If you love fine literature and an author who can pull you into the lives of his characters, then I know you will enjoy The Easter Parade. If I had to change one thing about this novel, I would have liked to have had it told in alternating POVs instead of just Emily. Despite this, I would highly recommend this book.

Book Review: The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

Title: The Palace of Dreams
Author: Ismail Kadare
Publisher: Vintage Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 978-0099518273
Pages: 192
Price: £7.99
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

As he did in his Man Booker International Prize-winning novel THE SUCCESSOR, Ismail Kadare portrays in THE PALACE OF DREAMS an autocratic, vaguely Islamic, East European state controlled by rumor, innuendo, superstition, and irrationality. The instrument of power this time, however, is not the whim of an all-powerful dictator who induces a constant state of fear and uncertainty in his subordinates, rivals, and subjects. Rather, it is a post-Freudian dream factory, a monolithic and opaque institution that serves the state by interpreting the nightly brain-ramblings of its citizenry. The purpose of the Tabir Sarrail, the Palace of Dreams, is simple: to sift through the thousands of sparsely remembered dream descriptions in search each week of a Master Dream, the one and only dream that will be presented as meaningful to the Sovereign. Presumably, that dream and its accompanying interpretation convey important information for running the state – for making key decisions, warning of impending crises or revolts, or just predicting the future. Of course, no one can say for sure how that Master Dream gets selected by the Palace’s director, how its particular interpretation is chosen, or whether the presented dream in fact ever took place or was simply fabricated for political purposes.

Kadare centers his tale around a most unlikely hero, Mark-Alem Quprili, the ineffectual scion of a long-powerful clan of ministers, viziers, and businessmen. As his given name suggests, Mark-Alem lives in a world half-Western and half-Islamic, with a last name of Albanian origin that translates as bridge. Not just any bridge, it seems, but an Albanian bridge of three arches (another of Kadare’s books is titled THE THREE-ARCHED BRIDGE) in which a murdered man was walled up inside its foundations. A family meeting decides Mark-Alem’s future – he will take a position at the Palace of Dreams. The young man enters his job naively, completely unaware that he is being positioned in the Tabir Sarrail to protect his family from the inscrutable machinations of government. He begins with a job in the Selection department, one of dozens if not hundreds who sift through the week’s collected dreams to choose those worth further consideration. In surprisingly short order, he is promoted to the Interpretation section, which analyzes those sent from Selection for meaning, including culling out the relatively small group that might become the week’s Master Dream.

The Palace of Dreams is an immense and forbidding structure, filled with endless corridors and locked doors. Each new experience there is for Mark-Alem a waking nightmare – wandering lost through empty and unmarked hallways, hearing faraway footsteps, seeing the dead bodies of citizen-dreamers who were brought in for interrogation being spirited away. Over time, however, the dreams whose readings fill Mark-Alem’s days become more real than life outside the Palace. How, after all, can real life possible compete with the wild imaginings, the sheer magic and impossibility, of dreams? Mark-Alem finds that he has even stopped having dreams of his own. As his responsibilities increase and his hours lengthen, his life becomes a dream state within a dream world in a dream-processing factory. It is not until he attends a dinner at his Vizier uncle’s home that reality, and the machine of State, impinge murderously on Mark-Alem and shock him awake. He discovers the truth of his situation in the Tabir Sarrail and how he failed to protect his family. Yet almost simultaneously, the attack on the Quprili’s is answered with a political counterattack that will forever change Mark-Alem’s life. This benign butterfly of a man becomes a powerful instrument of the State and its evil affairs, and he even dares to dream his own dreams again.

Ismail Kadare’s prose is powerful in its very sparseness. His setting is Balkan, but the time period is deliberately unspecific, vaguely 19th Century in feeling. THE PALACE OF DREAMS progresses easily and quietly, but the story feels like a dream itself, a nightmare world of uncertainty, unnamable fears, and evil portents. We experience through Mark-Alem a ceaseless sense of confusion, of being constantly lost and unable to find our way out. Various newspaper reviewers likened this novel to Kafka’s THE TRIAL and THE CASTLE (the obvious choices), Borges’s labyrinth, Canetti’s AUTO DA FE, or Auster’s THE MUSIC OF CHANCE. For me, the analogues were Plato’s cave, Saramago’s THE CAVE, and Solzhenitsyn’s THE FIRST CIRCLE. Regardless, THE PALACE OF DREAMS is a chilling, almost nightmarish story of a world where reality is governed by irrational belief in the quasi-religious predictive power of dreams. It is a forbidding world in which government is run by superstitious faith, where decisions of life and death are divorced from the reality-based world. THE PALACE OF DREAMS is a first-rate tale, an unsettling horror story that mirrors modern life too closely for comfort. Ismail Kadare deserves a wider audience. His work in eminently readable, and he has much to tell us.