Tag Archives: Literary Fiction Reading Project

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett Title: The Dutch House
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526618757
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a novel of many wonders. It is a box of things that are seen at first glance, only to discover a secret opening, where new things emerge from. This book gives, and gives, and gives some more. As a reader, as a fan of Patchett’s works, as an ardent admirer of what she puts to paper, my experience with The Dutch House has been surreal, mixed with nostalgia, and snatches of memory of my own childhood (though not this morbid or unfortunate).

What is a novel? What should be a novel? Is there such a thing as an ideal novel? Who decides that, if there is something like that? The critic? The reader? Or all of us, trying to find answers to questions of meaning of life, hope, and love as we turn the pages of novel after novel, searching for truths unknown as we move from one work of fiction to another?

The Dutch House is a fairy-tale. It is also gothic in nature when you least expect it to be. It is also full of misery, and then surprises you with moments of hope and togetherness. It is the story of two siblings – how they lose their home, how they understand each other (or not), and how they reclaim some of their lost home.

We are introduced to Danny (the narrator), and his older sister Maeve right at the beginning of the book. Their introduction to their would-be stepmother Andrea is where the book starts, and that’s when the series of events unfold in front of the reader – travelling between the past and the present of the novel.

The fairy-tale element runs strong, with a fair share of the Gothic that adds to the strong plot. Not to forget the way Patchett builds on the characters – from the housekeepers to the people that enter and exit from the siblings’ lives. Each character and each plot point is thought of to the last minute detail and maybe therefore this novel is as close to being perfect or it already is in more than one way.

What I found most interesting was the use of narration – by using the first-person narrator technique in a novel where time is of most importance, we see events unfold through two perspectives – the younger Danny and the older Danny. A doppelgänger effect, adding another layer to the complexity of the book.

The Dutch House is deceptively simple. It is a book that seems so easy to read on the surface, and it is. However, it is in joining the dots that are far and wide that adds to the reading experience. It is for this reason and more that Patchett is one of my top 10 favourite writers and will always be. She makes you feel, she makes you internalise how you think and feel as you read her books, and more than anything else she reminds you that being humane is the heart of it all.

Lanny by Max Porter

Lanny by Max Porter Title: Lanny
Author: Max Porter
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571340286
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I remember reading Grief is the Thing with Feathers a couple of years ago and being blown away by the writing, and of course with good enough and more reasons. At that time, it took me a reread to sink into the novel a little more, and rightly so. The layers of grief and loss and to add to that a crow made perfect sense.

The prose of Max Porter is unique, the plot is all over the place (as it is in Lanny as well), but once you succumb to the world he creates, nothing else matters. His latest offering and Booker Prize 2019 long-listed nomination Lanny is all of the above and more.

I picked Lanny with great trepidation. I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectation. More than anything else in my experience, Booker Longlist titles have more often than not proven to be disappointing. This wasn’t the case with Lanny.

Lanny literally drips with lyrical language, almost poetic, and some great writing. This is then backed with a plot that is steeped in reality and yet magical, combined with writing that takes you out of your comfort zone. It is the story of a missing boy on the surface of it – a boy from a rural space lost on the commuter belt to London. But there is so much more to Lanny than just this.

Lanny lives with his parents – mum, a retired actress now author and dad, a city worker. They live in the village that is riddled with mystery, superstition, and folklore. This then is added with everyone’s supposition and assumption of what happened to Lanny. At the same time, there are two very central characters to the book – Mad Pete and Dead Papa Toothwort, who not only add to the strangeness but also most certainly move the plot forward. You need to understand and know these characters for yourself.

This book isn’t easy to get into. It will take some time but persist is what I have to say. Give it that time and to the writing prowess of Porter. Read it at leisure. Deliberate and go back and forth the way you are supposed to. Argue with it. Read it for the beautiful empathetic prose and what it means to be a child and an adult in our world.

Porter’s creativity is at its peak and this is only his second book. I for one cannot wait to see what he has in store next for all of us. Fingers crossed; I am rooting for this to make it to the shortlist.

77 by Guillermo Saccomanno. Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger

77 by Guillermo Saccomanno Title: 77
Author: Guillermo Saccomanno
Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
Publisher: Open Letter
ISBN: 978-1940953892
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 220
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Books written to defy, to present various points of view, and above all to show us that we can and should raise voices against powers are books that I love to read. It makes me feel stronger, it makes me want to protest, and more than anything else it makes me feel that I have companions and not alone in the world when it comes to issues close to my heart. 77 is one such book that held me by my throat and being and I just had to finish it in almost three sittings or so. The book still lingers in my memory, and I know that it will for a long time to come.

 So, what is the book about?

 The book is set in Buenos Aires, 1977. A time that is considered to be a part of the darkest days of the Videla dictatorship, from the time he seized power in 1976. At the heart of the book is Gómez, a gay high-school literature teacher, trying very hard to keep a low profile as his friends and students begin to disappear. This is the time when questioning is forbidden, and people aren’t allowed to live the way they wish to.

 Things also start spiralling when he gives shelter to two dissidents in his house, and to make things worst he is having an affair with a homophobic cop who is loyal to the government and no one else. The book is told in flashbacks – from 2007 to 1977 – jumping back and forth.

 I was stunned reading this novel. I didn’t know what to feel for some time and then I realized that I was scared. Scared of such a regime being thrust upon us (though it seems that day isn’t very far) and how we would react or live in that case. Living under a dictatorship isn’t easy. At the same time, it isn’t very hard for people to get used to it, which is most fearful.

Saccomanno’s writing is fluid and clear. In most parts, I thought of it to be autobiographical and I don’t think I was far from the truth. The moral, social, and intellectual dilemmas that present themselves make the book so haunting and real. Is literature dead? Is sexual preference dead? Is raising your voice dead? What is alive anymore?

 77 is a book not just about a year – about people, their opinions, the regime that wants a mental shutdown of its people, a state that will have nothing but totalitarianism at the helm of things. 77, to me was more than just a book. It is about a literary soul that is trapped and is the story of one man trying to make sense in a world of madness and inhumanity, lurking in almost every corner. It is a book that shows you what shouldn’t be repeated. We can only hope and pray.

 

Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn

Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn Title: Bottled Goods
Author: Sophie Van Llewyn
Publisher: Fairlight Books
ISBN: 978-1912054305
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 190
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I have read almost more than half of the Women’s Prize longlist of this year, and hands down this is one of the top 3 favourites of mine. Bottled Goods is the kind of book that makes you contemplate and ruminate over life and its dynamics at the end of every chapter almost, which doesn’t happen very often when you read a book. Bottled Goods wrenches you and takes you to a place where you start wondering about good and bad, right and wrong, and the need to want to leave your home and yet stay.

The book is set in communist Romania and at the heart of it is Alina living with her husband, Liviu, quite satisfied, with her head down and going about her life. This is all well and good till her brother-in-law defects to the West and she and her husband come in the eye of secret service. There is torture from the agents – emotional, mental, and physical, eventually taking a toll on their marriage. In all of this enters Alina’s aunt Therese who can help her escape the country through the old folk ways.

Van Llewyn writes brilliantly and with great brevity. No word or sentence is out of place. Whether she is talking about Alina’s rocky relationship with her mother, husband, or country, everything is just perfect. I never thought I needed more to hit home. I have not read any book with Romania as a setting so far, and I am only intrigued to know more about it in the time of Ceausescu and what did normal folk go through, living day by day.

Bottled Goods as the title has so many meanings to it. The yearning to get out – as if you are bottled goods itself, the meaning of not being able to take bottled goods out of the country, or even aspirations when it comes to perfume or bottles of aerated drinks that aren’t accessible. The atmosphere of the book is spot-on. Llewyn manages to create tension and menace right throughout the book, infused with humour, regret, and rumination over what has been lost.

Bottled Goods is the kind of book that opens your world to what was going on in the world and does it delicately, at the same time not sparing any details. The characters are rounded, and communist Romania emerges very strongly as another character. For me, the magical elements were magical, and I did not consider them to be metaphors (though some readers could). Overall, I am hooting for it to win, only because it is something so different, empathetic, real, and more than anything else written with great finesse and style.

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

The Heavens by Sandra Newman Title: The Heavens
Author: Sandra Newman
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802129024
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

The Heavens is the kind of book that gets under your skin only if you allow it to. In the sense that you have to be prepared for it, read it slowly, take in what Newman has to offer, and then be enthralled by its worlds, characters, and their lives. I don’t even know how to categorize this book – what does one call it? Historical fiction? Contemporary? Fantasy? Come to think of it, I shall not call it anything but a novel that will charm, beguile, and leave you a little bit breathless.

I hadn’t realized Sandra Newman had written more books before reading this one. So, long story short: The Heavens is about the power of dreams and what they can do to your world. It is the year 2000. Ben (Debendranath – yes, read the book to find out more) meets Kate and they fall in love. Kate loves love. Ben loves Kate.

Then there is the question of Kate’s dreams that she’s been having since childhood. The dreams where she lives a second life as Emilia – the mistress of a nobleman in Elizabethan England. But what happens when dreams impact reality? Kate begins to understand that her actions in her dreams alter her reality on waking up. Incidents that she doesn’t remember anymore, people she hasn’t heard of, neighbourhoods that have sprung up on their own, and something more is at play which she has to stop, or so she thinks.

In all of this is Ben – always wondering what’s going on with his partner. From a family with its own demons, all he wants is a simple life, and tries very hard to understand Kate and her second life as Emilia. And but of course you have to read the book to find out what happens next – what occurs and what doesn’t. In all of this, Newman introduces their friends – Sabine – free-spirited, gossipy, and absolutely silly (at least to me), Oksana (you just have to read about her), Martin, and José to name a few. The reason I speak of them is they are as integral to the story as Ben and Kate.

Newman’s writing reminded me of Alain de Botton’s style to begin with, till I got used to her voice and it was only her writing that mattered. Her prose strikes you in so many places – the struggle of Kate and whether or not she is losing her mind. Newman makes you believe in both worlds equally – in both characters – Kate and Emilia. Not for once did they strike me as the same person, till of course dreams and reality merged.

There is also a surprise element of who she meets in the year of the plague in England. The technicalities of time travel are spot-on – they never bog you down as a reader. In fact, you want to know more about that era and what transpired. What I loved the most is that Newman gets to the point. There is brevity in its 272 pages and no rambling at all.

The Heavens could also not be for all. It worked for me on several levels – of love, friendship, dreams, and what may come in the future. But it may not work for you if you are the sort of reader who wants to find meaning and purpose in everything you read. Sandra Newman is one author whose works I will be devouring a lot more.