Category Archives: Literary Fiction Reading Project 2017

The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O’Brien

The Country Girls Trilogy Title: The Country Girls Trilogy: The Country Girls; The Lonely Girl; Girls in their Married Bliss
Author: Edna O’Brien
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571330539
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 704
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

So, it took me close to three weeks to finish this trilogy and I really wish those three weeks had not ended this soon. After having heard so much about Edna O’Brien and her writing, this was the first time I was reading something by her (one of her most famous works) and I just cannot wait to lay my hands on more works by her. On an off-note, a lot of people ask me, how every read of mine ends up being five stars or four stars for me? Well, that’s because I pick what I know for sure I will love reading. I think more people should do that. Read what they know they will love, irrespective. Anyway, back to the Country Girls Trilogy.

The country girls are Kate (Caithleen Brady) and Baba (Bridget Brennan) and the trilogy as you must have guessed is about them. It is about their stories that begin the regressive setting of a small village in the west of Ireland in the years following World War II. Kate is looking for love. Baba on the other hand, is a survivor. All that they want is a life that isn’t handed to them, but what they make of it. With hopes and dreams and out to conquer it all, they arrive in Dublin and that’s where the story plays out. The bad choices made, the bad sex had, the bad friends, the bleakness of living and in all of this, the resilience and not to forget the expectations they have of themselves and what is thrust upon by them from society.

O’Brien has written this trilogy with a lot of heart and soul. It is wryly funny too and there are pockets of so much warmth that you cannot help but hoot for Kate and Baba. Initially I thought I wasn’t going to feel anything for these characters, however, as the story plays out, they become a part of your everyday tapestry, through the similarities and differences. Sure, you cannot relate to the Ireland of the 60’s and sure it is all very different now, everywhere in the world (is it?) but the slice of life is what is pertinent and stays relevant to a large extent.

“The Country Girls Trilogy” is a read perfect for winter. Something about it which I cannot put my finger on – maybe the melancholy factor or the transition from hope to despair and vice-versa or even the frivolous to the profound swinging of thoughts and emotions, all in all a read that you must not miss out on.

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Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo

Welcome to Lagos.jpg Title: Welcome to Lagos
Author: Chibundu Onuzo
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571268955
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

“Welcome to Lagos” is a delightful read. It is about strangers who meet on a bus – from different walks of life and end up sharing their burdens, their hopes and above all their fears as they enter Lagos. They are runaways from Bayelsa and all in search of a better life. It wouldn’t have mattered where the story of this book would have been set. The beauty of the book lies in its plot and structure. It could have been any city. Onuzo chose a city that is close to her heart – where she grew up – Lagos and it comes through stunningly in this book.

There are moments of joy and then there are those tragic moments in this book that make you want to jump in and hug those characters. To tell them that it will all be okay and things aren’t so bad. The book is political to a very large extent as well, but what sets it apart from the other books on Lagos (fiction and non-fiction) is that there is a lot of soul and heart in this one. Onuzo portrays her hometown’s history and situation lucidly through her characters’ eyes.

Chike, a soldier who has deserted an army unit after being disillusioned by his commanding officer. There is Fineboy, a militant who is more interested in radio and deals than violence. Isoken – a woman who has lost her family and come too close to losing her autonomy. Oma, a wife who is fleeing her husband and Yemi, Chike’s right-hand man who is an illiterate and yet is deeply rooted to his country’s welfare and history. These are the five characters that Onuzo introduces us to and makes the fabric of their lives intricately connected to ours. These renegades prefer to go about their lives quietly and yet as their paths converge with that of an unwilling benefactor, the story turns itself on its head.

There is endurance of spirit in the book. A lot of compassion between characters for each other which I loved the most. Lagos’s vibrancy, cultural exuberance and the tribal traditions are succinctly brought out in Onuzo’s writing. The book is graceful, almost soft in its approach. There is violence for sure, but Onuzo shows us the Nigeria that she belongs to, the Nigeria her characters belong to and how they go about life and love in all the conflict that is within.

Fresh Complaint: Stories by Jeffrey Eugenides

Fresh Complaint Title: Fresh Complaint: Stories
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374203061
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Jeffrey Eugenides’ writing has come a long way. Who am I to judge that? His ardent fan. One of his ardent fans, who could not get enough of The Virgin Suicides or Middlesex or The Marriage Plot (weakest among the three and yet, I loved it to bits). One of his fans who cannot stop raving about his new book “Fresh Complaint”, a collection of short stories that shows family love, discovery of the self, adolescence, identity and what it means to be American (well, not all the time) through ten stunning stories (two of them which I found to be off, but loved them nonetheless).

I have also always believed that writing short stories is way more difficult than the novel. Short stories have to be taut. You cannot take liberties with time and space as you would in a novel and that makes them even more difficult when it comes to engaging with readers. In Eugenides’ stories we meet people who are broken, who are whole, who go through life in a daze and some who think they have it all under control and stumble only to realize that this isn’t the life they wanted anyway.

My favourite stories in this collection are “Baster” – which is funny and yet so tragic and also “Air Mail” – which is about Mitchell whose story was left hanging in The Marriage Plot and this story somewhat gives it closure. “Complainers”, the first story in the collection is about dementia, old age and above all of the beautiful friendship two women share over the years. And last but not the least, I absolutely could not get enough of the title story. “Fresh Complaint” is a story that could very well have been a novel. It is the story of a high school student whose wish to escape her immigrant family has consequences on a British physicists’ life beyond repair.

Characters in this collection are not kind all the time. They are just human. Eugenides allows his characters to make their mistakes, live their dreams and see regrets for what they are. He takes you to uncomfortable places and is not apologetic about it. These stories date from 1989 to 2017, out of which eight were previously published (I hadn’t read any). “Fresh Complaint” is a collection of stories that are real, insightful and dark, allowing characters to hide, to be seen and not without some humour as well.

 

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout Title: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-1400067695
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are times when you stumble on books, do not read them, or read a couple of pages and drop them. You pick them up again and do not get past a couple of pages. You pick it up again (the specific, dreaded book in question) and yet you just cannot seem to make it beyond the thirtieth page or so. Till one fine day, you pick it up and voila! You just cannot seem to stop reading it. In fact, you don’t want the book to end. You want it to continue, to unravel its secrets, the words that consume you and in turn make you think things about your life.

Art is almost a replica of life. They say it imitates life. I say, it just is. “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout may not resonate page by page or in the overall sense of plot, but there are places where it will take your breath away (it at least did that to me). It is a very regular story or so it seems.

Lucy Barton is unwell. She is undergoing a minor surgery and is in the hospital. It is the early 90s (not specified but you can more or less figure). Her mother visits her and stays with her for five days. The book opens with them speaking of the old days – of Lucy’s childhood, her siblings and how they lived.

That is when the secrets tumble and questions come to the fore – them being born to poverty, the time her parents locked her in a truck with a snake (why), the time her father humiliated her brother, calling him a “fucking faggot” in front of everyone after he was caught trying Mom’s high heels. We can see the family is beyond dysfunctional and redemption of any kind. Lucy is wounded, and yet she is happily married (or so we think), with two children and is on the way to becoming a writer.

Strout speaks of marriage, family, children, love, homosexuality and so much more through Lucy. And yet she makes Lucy such an unreliable narrator that you are confused but want to know so much more and after a point you do not care, if Lucy is telling the truth or not. You believe her anyway. The book is pretty much rooted in Lucy’s childhood and her reactions to things as she is an adult comes from a deep, dark, lonely place.

On the surface, “My Name is Lucy Barton” may not seem much of a book, but as you dive into its pages, you can see it for what it is and if you are looking for more answers, then there’s the sequel “Anything is Possible” (which I need to get to as soon as possible). Strout proves that brevity could most of the time be the best tool used in fiction. This book is less than two hundred pages and yet it is not a fast read. You will mull and ponder over what you read. Perhaps even go back to some sentences.

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

“It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

“But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”

“But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.”

“Because we all love imperfectly.”

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Little, Brown
ISBN: 978-1408709726
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I knew exactly what I was getting into as I started reading “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng. I had read her first book two years ago called “Everything I Never Told You” and couldn’t wait to start her new one. I can for sure say that I enjoyed “Little Fires Everywhere” a lot more (sorry for that Celeste, though I also enjoyed your debut novel a lot as well). The prose, the description and more than that how life in America is when it comes to consumerism and parenthood at some point mingling together is brilliantly depicted in this novel of dysfunctional families, twisted minds and family ties.

“Little Fires Everywhere” begins with a house burnt down in a closely tight-knit planned community where nothing of this sort would be dreamed of happening by its residents. The idea of well-gated community called Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997 says a lot about the Utopia and unwelcome change and how all if it disrupts the Richardson family’s seemingly happy life, when Mia (a charismatic artist) and her shy fifteen-year old daughter Pearl, move to the town as tenants in the house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents.

This triggers events – mainly the differences in their lifestyles and also what is the attitude of the Richardsons when old family friends on theirs decide to adopt a Chinese-American baby – that would one day lead to the Richardson’s own house burning. I am not giving away anything, don’t worry, but all I can say is that this book kept me up longer than I intended those two nights it took me to finish it.

Celeste Ng has this amazing quality of going easy on the reader mostly and then out of nowhere, she shows you the cracks in relationships, the changes as people interact with each other and how explosive it all is under a calm surface. I loved the writing. It is fast and yet bringing out the details of every character – the Richardson family (mother, father and four teenage children), Mia and Pearl (who I loved as the book moved along) and also the other couple – every detail, every sentence is in place when it comes to “Little Fires Everywhere”. The title is so layered – depicting the fires within and the ones that we see. The ones we also feel but deny and move along in life. If you have to read one book this October (while there is still time), make it this one.