So many books, so little time. Also so little ability to retain clear memories of all those novels that are just like other novels. When I find one that sticks with me, I call it good and want to share it.
Here are four novels whose worlds and lives are so well told that I can picture myself living in them, for good or ill. Some relate especially to this blog's focus on creative flow.
The Infatuations by Javier Marías was more than ably translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (who brilliantly translated most of Saramago's brilliant work). What I love about this novel is its meta-ness. The plot is ostensibly about what happened to a husband who unexpectedly disappeared. He had been eating regularly at a certain cafe with his wife, while another woman watched and envied them their evident happiness. The watching woman meets the now widowed woman and things get weird.
To provide you with a sense of the consciousness of the novel, I'll quote two bits that struck me as relevant to writing, creativity, and the story we've been pulled into:
Once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with.
It’s never easy to put yourself in a non-existent situation, I can’t understand how so many people spend their whole life pretending, because it’s impossible to keep every factor in mind, down to the last, unreal detail, when there are no details and they have all been made up.
Daughters of Mars is by Thomas Keneally, the Australian who also wrote Schindler's List. Like many avid novel readers, I love learning new things as I read. When a skilled author manages to make me feel as though I'm bandaging the festering wounds of Australian soldiers while on a boat anchored near Gallipoli in 1915, I enjoy the sensation of visiting history, even while flinching.
Lots of gore, reserved manners and shy love affairs, secrets that don't seem so big to me but are felt as huge by the characters. We get to know several characters in addition to the two main sisters, and finally we get to care about those sisters enough to read all the way through to an unusual ending. Exploring themes of war and pacifism, borders and duty, and love and fate, Daughters of Mars and the wounds of that old war will live for some time in your memory, as I know they will in mine.
Cartwheel was written by the appallingly young Jennifer DuBois. I don't always gravitate to "based-on-a-true-story" novels (see my mention of Schroder). I hadn't followed the Amanda Knox case when it was news in 2007, however, so to me it was "just" a story. DuBois showed excellent insight into the psychology of each of the members of the central family, from father and mother to the two very different daughters.
Cartwheel is a page-turner in its own way. The descriptions of living in a foreign country are true to my own emotional experience of having been such an outsider linguistically and otherwise. A death in the family occurs long before the story opens, and though we find out that it matters (as it would!), the author gives us no simplistic explanation of how that death may have contributed to the murder at the core of the novel. I found the switching of points of view sophisticated. Most of the characters were likeable enough, the lawyer was a balanced character, while the main protagonist remained semi-opaque. It's her (misunderstood?) cartwheel while alone in an interrogation room that gives the novel its title. (See this interesting interview with DuBois.)
Transatlantic by Colum McCann (author of Let the Great World Spin) goes back and forth in time, scenes in one era connecting to what came before and what follows, and features many transatlantic journeys. The plot isn't easy to describe (as with many literary novels), but the writing draws you in and keeps you reading. What I wanted to highlight is this extended on-target description of a writer's sense of flow:
Stories began, for her, as a lump in the throat. She sometimes found it hard to speak. A true understanding lay just beneath the surface. She felt a sort of homesickness whenever she sat down at a sheet of paper. Her imagination pushed back against the pressures of what lay around her. Emily Ehrlich survived not by theory, or formula, but by certain moments of ease when she felt herself at full tilt, a sprinting, hurdling joy. Lost in a small excelsis.
The best moments were when her mind seemed to implode. It made a shambles of time. All the light disappeared. The infinity of her inkwell. A quiver of dark at the end of the pen.
Hours of loss and escape. Insanity and failure. Scratching one word out, blotting the middle of a page so it was unreadable anymore, tearing the sheet into long thin strips.
The elaborate search for a word, like the turning of a chain handle on a well. Dropping the bucket down the mineshaft of the mind. Taking up empty bucket after empty bucket until, finally, at an unexpected moment, it caught hard and had a sudden weight and she raised the word, then delved down into the emptiness once more.
Writers: doesn't that ring true for you, too?
Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry
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