Tag Archives: Dysfunctional families

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists Title: The Immortalists
Author: Chloe Benjamin
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0735213180
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

What would you do if you knew the day of your death? How would you live your life differently, or would you? What do you think it would be like for you? Also, what would it be if each of your siblings also knew the day of their death? Would your relationships be any different? How would life then play out? These questions and more haunted me as I was reading, “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin.

“The Immortalists” might seem like that one book which you read a while ago but it isn’t. There is so much and more to the book that you cannot compare it with anything you’ve read before, so I suggest you don’t even try and read it with an open-mind at the very best.

The story starts off in New York in 1969, when we meet the Gold children – Varya 13, Daniel 11, Klara 9 and Simon who is 7 years old. They belong to a religious Jewish family and are close to their parents. A psychic is heard of by one of the children – someone who has set camp nearby and four of them head out to meet her, who is known to predict the date of someone’s death. She individually tells them each the day they will die. This is where the story begins.

The novel is divided into four sections, each for one child, and we traverse through their lives, trying to understand what happens to each of them as they live and whether or not the prediction comes true.

I am not going to give away any spoilers here but all I can say is that this book has the power to leave you stunned and asking for more answers. Who was the psychic? What happens? What does not happen and why? All of this makes you turn the pages anyway but Benjamin’s writing does not seem new. She doesn’t write like a debut novelist. The craft is so precise – every scene comes alive; every emotion wrenches you and you can’t help but mull over it.

The dynamics of the siblings with each other and their mother is another thing that will make you relate to the book to a very large extent. Also, what they choose to share with each other and don’t forms such a major part of the book. What I also loved was the role time plays this book – with it hanging so severely on their heads and yet it is in a way so subtle – moving at its own pace and making the siblings realize the value or life or not.

“The Immortalists” is the kind of book which will have you thinking about life, more and everything in between. This book is hard to put down once you start it. Benjamin will literally make you cry (be prepared for it) and smile almost in the same page. It is a book which truly deserves all accolades and more this year. Read it. You will not be disappointed.

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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.

 

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo. Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

Iza's Ballad Title: Iza’s Ballad
Author: Magda Szabo
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681370347
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I haven’t read too many books about mothers and daughters. I am sure there a lot of them out there but I haven’t been able to cover that territory the way I have been wanting to. Every relationship when it comes to a parent gets a little complex. There are always disagreements for sure, but we don’t realize when it leads to becoming a dysfunctional relationship from an accommodating one. It happens too fast, too soon. Families are like that I suppose and a lot of writers have written and continue to write about it. I was floored by Szabo’s earlier work “The Door” – again the relationship between two women, so I knew what I was getting into and boy was I not disappointed by it!

“Iza’s Ballad” is about Ettie – the old mother from an older world. Her daughter Iza as expected is from the modern world, with thoughts that are not aligned to those of her mother’s. Ettie is recently widowed and goes to live with Iza (who is now a doctor) in Budapest. Ettie was born and brought up without a formal education and came from a poor background. However, she ensured her daughter was well-educated and did not want for anything. Her husband Vince was a magistrate and Iza has taken after him. Ettie cannot get used to Iza’s way of living. Iza on the other hand has stopped being answerable to anyone. The traditional and the modern clash just as they did in “The Door”.

Szabo’s writing is not easy. It takes some time to get into but the translation by George Szirtes is spot on to the last detail. The reason I say this without knowing a word of Hungarian is the nuances, metaphors and folk references aren’t lost at all on the English reader. To me that is some good enough criteria of a great translation. Also, being a man he gets the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship beautifully and only too accurately.

The concept is universal and hence almost every reader can relate to it. Szabo doesn’t waste her words and that is quite evident. In fact, in so many places, she doesn’t try too hard telling the reader, but just shows and leaves and that’s how a good book should be. “Iza’s Ballad” is an emotional ride and yet restrained – balancing the old and the new, the relationship dynamics and above all love and its transformation.

Book Review: The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie

The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie Title: The Cuckoo Boy
Author: Grant Gillespie
Publisher: To Hell with Publishing
ISBN: 9780955460944
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin of The Novel Cure
Rating: 5/5

I had heard of “The Cuckoo Boy” by Grant Gillespie through The Novel Cure and it was a part of my reading challenge – The Novel Cure Reading Challenge. It is a cure for adoption and yet somewhere down the line, there is to more to the book than what meets the eye.

It is a story of a dysfunctional couple – Sandra and Kenneth adopting Baby James and how their world spins out of control thereon. There is an imaginary friend David, who enters the scene and very soon there is a real friend David who also enters the picture, thus making the book and the plot, slightly chillier. The book is seen through the eyes of James and his parents. The emotional expectations are almost the centrepiece of this novel. It is about worlds colliding – the real and the imaginary, which makes the book what it is – juicier and scarier.

There are moments in the book, when you look back on your shoulder to see if there is anything going on at all. Grant does not give all the answers to readers. He makes them hang to turn the pages and find out more. It is also in so many ways a whodunit, given the situations and the revenge exacting nature of James. The book is tricky – one starts to wonder if the parents are wrong or the child is wrong, till the puzzle fits itself.

The story is tight and yet sometimes loses out on the overall communication of the plot. Having said that, I would still give it a five, because of the sheer force of writing. The dread surrounding the book is eerie and the atmosphere is only full of macabre. A read for a dark winter’s night, because this is exactly the kind of book you want to take to bed.

Next up on the challenge: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett