I’m back with a new book review – NO, WAIT make that TWO)! Today I want to recommend two novels to you, one is written by an Austrian guy and the other by a British lady. Ladies first, alright? This is my second novel by Fay Whelton, the first one was Big Girls Don’t Cry and I thought that one was incredibly insightful and intelligent. If you want to read it, my original review is here. Now, my conclusion about this second novel by Fay is: just copy past everything I said about how brilliant this author is. I mean this woman goes beyond being witty and intelligent, her novels are not just satire, they are also wonderfully and beautifully written. Besides being so darn smart, Fay also makes for an amazingly insightful social and political commentator. This is social satire at its best- because it is not targeting anyone- or rather it is targeting everyone. There is a generous amount of humour in this novel and it balances nicely with the portrayal of characters and the plot itself. I did really feel for the characters in this one (more about that in a minute), so fingers up for their development.
So, her first novel ( the first I read- Big Girls Don’t Cry) really impressed me, but I must say that I like this novel even better. Why? Because of the narrative. Whelton uses framed narrative very much to her advantage. The story is told by a seventy-two-old grandmother who has had a wild past and who is now an extremely perceptive observer of everything going on. What is going on exactly? Well, her granddaughter Hattie (to whom our narrator has been a good grandmother despite being a rather horrible mother to her own daughter who was raised by her grandmother- something that seems to run in the family) has decided to hire an au pair so she can get back to her work since living on one salary is taking its toll on her relationship/partnership. I say partnership because Martyn and Hattie aren’t married. They are partnered. As a matter of principle. They love one another but feel they love doesn’t need a confirmation. A piece of paper means nothing to them. Or so they claim. Through eyes of our narrator we will learn a great deal about this couple- spiced with many reflections on modern relationships as well as. I would absolutely recommend this novel to everyone.
Who is the Austrian guy? Apparently, Johannes is a well-known written who sold millions of copies and had several movies adapted for the screen but somehow, I haven’t heard of him before. Moreover, this was my first novel by him. I wasn’t sure should I write my review in English because this book (or so it seems) hasn't been translated to English. I looked it up and there is no trace of any English translation anywhere. I didn’t read it in original (that would be German), because I can’t read in German. I’m always surprised that so much of European literature hasn’t been translated to English but then again perhaps the English market is overbooked? I suppose there is a lot of people who read in English and aren’t English themselves but on the other hand they probably prefer to read a book in their own mother tongue. I don’t know, but I do know that I always have an easier time finding Croatian translations than English ones.
What kind of book is it? It is a very short novel that is easy to follow and can be read fairy quickly but the story itself is far from trivial. Despite what it might seem like, it is not some cheesy love story. The idea of the novel is very interesting and the story felt quite original to me. It is well written. The ending will probably catch you by surprise. I really liked it. I felt it tied everything together nicely. Johannes is slightly ironic at times, but his bitterness is always dozed with sweetness so that the taste this story leaves in one mouth is quite pleasant. The writer doesn’t really go into depth of things, but honestly, I didn’t mind that. My interpretation of this book is that it leaves a lot to interpretation. I quite liked that ambiguity because it reminded me of Henry James and oddly enough I also caught myself thinking about Camus and his novel The Stranger- there is this vibe of isolation that I caught towards the very end.
I feel like there is a way to read this story in which the married couples are really in love but the opposite could also be the case. I guess we will never know. We’re all sometimes so relentless in the way we read others that there is no point in trying to prove us wrong. Perhaps this is even more case with those we love, we’re so certain we know them well that we become possessive over their identity. He is like that or she is like that- every wife (girlfriend) and husband (boyfriend) are so sure they can describe their spouse (partner) but what do we really know of each other? What is love after all? Passion or loyalty? Is true love more common between friends or between mere strangers? Can we be truly ourselves with those we know well? Removal of inhibitions can be a powerful feeling, but isn’t love always about intimacy? However, what is intimacy? Johannes doesn’t exactly ask these questions, but he makes you want to ask them and I think that is what makes a good writer.
The narrator of the book intrigued me from the start. He is a writer of 'popular books' that sell in million copies. He gave up on writing books of any artistic value because art doesn’t sell well. He now writes book he despises but that are earning him a fortune. He seems to be one of those ‘live and let life’ characters that avoid becoming shallow by remaining genuinely open-minded. Thus, he seems to be a decent person, despite making a living writing cheesy novels. At the same time, he also works as a ‘saviour’ of films gone wrong. Apparently, he can rewrite them in matter of days because of his immense talent as a screenwriter. He doesn’t want anyone to know about his screenwriter work and projects, because he is worried that his ‘trashy’ readers might be put off if they found out he was a part of artistic films. Interesting, right?
Occasionally, you come upon a novel where the narrator is as interesting as the protagonists themselves. Sometimes that narrator seems be reflecting the writer himself (I’m thinking The Human Stain and Philip Roth). This narrator does have many similarities with the writer himself (if Wikipedia is to be trusted). I suppose the reason why I like this kind of story framing is because it gives me an opportunity to look at the writer- or at least it provides me with an illusion of observing a writer. You can almost see his writing process. I just find it fascinating. I know that some people aren’t fans of framed narratives, but I seem to love them, even those that are almost hopelessly overdone as Wuthering Heights. I suppose that in some stories it can be too much, but there it is simply perfect. I can say the same thing about She May Not Go. The narrator in this novel was simply perfect.
Anyhow, our writer is travelling in train when he meets a woman who is glowing with happiness. She is her fifties and apparently, he can make this observation only because she hadn’t her hands done, otherwise she looks younger and as I said she had that special glow that enamoured women have. As you can see, there is a lot of intertextuality here. Basically, our narrator is playing the cliché game a bit, but he does it very subtly and at first you hardly notice it. It is not that this is a novel about writing, but if you look closely, you’ll find references about writing process. Anyway, this lady confides in him. Why? Is it because he told her that he is a writer or is it as she claims- she felt instantly that he is the person (the one) to hear her story? She tells him and she is travelling to see the only man she has only truly loved- a painter. At this point, it is her story that we’re following and it is a very touching story …what happens from there? You’ll have to read to find out.
There are some interesting questions about the nature of painting that this novel opened and they made me think a bit. I think they’re meant to be make us think about the art itself. The narrator himself, who is a person of considerable artistic talent (if his screenwriting miracles are any judge), fails to interpret the almond painting correctly, or does he? Read the novel and let me know what you think about the painter and his talent. Basically, we have three narrators in this novel, our writer and two women. Are the women truly reliable narrators? Is the writer himself? When the writer sees the almond blossoms for the first time, he is moved by them. Was that a trick? Or was it not? They say there is an element of truth in every lie. Perhaps in some lies there is more truth than in some truths. Perhaps it wasn’t all a trick. Perhaps it was. Yes, I would have to repeat once again- this novel is ambiguous to the core. I have at least five interpretations of the ending, if you do read this one, send me a message so we can discuss them. Not since my last Kazuo Ishiguro novel have I been thinking over things as much!
Apart from the theme of love, there is obviously another important theme and that would be the theme of art. It is not only by mentioning painting that art becomes the important theme, if you look closely you will see that this novel explores the writing a bit as well. There is humour and irony in it and a sense of playfulness but all said and done, this story makes you think. It doesn’t feel very ambitious at first, but you might be surprised. In English, this novel could be titled The Man Who Painted Almond trees. If you want to ponder a bit about love, art and the harsh realities of the world, this book is not a bad choice. It is a very potent mix of romantic and bitter, trivial and magical, so if you don’t mind bittersweet writing, give it a go. The novel doesn’t have many twists and turn, except for the one towards the end. I’m still under the impression of this unexpected ending that I found to be quite fresh and convincing.
There is one thing that bugs me about this novel. I’m not entirely sure am I reading too much into it. It is either a work of a very restrained writer who managed to deliver something extraordinary without making it too obvious or it is a work of a talented writer who didn’t try too hard but somehow ended up writing something profound without even intending it? I’m not sure. I can’t put my finger onto something and say- this is what makes this novel a masterpiece but that doesn’t have to mean anything. All things considered, who cares? Maybe it is a trick, but these almond blossoms impressed me. On some level, even tricks are real. Real in the sense of the feeling they grant us- for illusions are a part of reality too. Bottom line is that this novel lingers in my head. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but I’m having a blast analyzing it in my head. So, there you go guys. Two reviews and one post...and tomorrow expect something a tad different.