The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster: Book review

The New York TrilogyI don’t remember how I first found out about Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy – it just sort of stumbled onto my reading list. Which is appropriate, because this is one of the most mysterious and baffling books I ever read.

There’s no easy way to describe the Trilogy, which is sort-of-but-not-really a spoof of detective novels overlaid with a navel-gazing exploration of identity and what fiction is and how it intersects with reality. Sort of. But not really. The first instalment, City of Glass, follows a writer who assumes the identity of a private detective named Paul Auster (yeah) and becomes obsessed with tracking a creepy client’s even creepier father. Book two, Ghosts, is about another private eye, Blue, who also becomes obsessed with a case – watching a man called Black. And part three, The Locked Room, is about a writer who unwittingly takes over the life of a friend.

Reading the trilogy is kind of like watching Lost – for all that TV drama’s (many, many) flaws, at its best it summoned up a sense of foreboding mystery, that something dark and deep and important lurked below its surface. The Trilogy evokes that same feeling of ominous, “What the fuck is going here?” wonder. As everyone in the world knows, Lost failed (terribly, horribly failed) at tying it all up into something at the end. But The New York Trilogy succeeds, and it probably succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to boil everything down into a straight-forward explanation*. (“They’re all in the afterlife!”) It just presents a conclusion that is as oblique and utterly batshit as everything that came before it. You either buy it or you don’t; I bought it.

*In fairness to Lost, though, the Trilogy doesn’t have reams of characters who each need their own semblance of a farewell – which probably makes its opaque ending more palatable.

 

Book review: The Name of the Star, Maureen Johnson

The Name of the StarRory Deveaux has two near-death experiences in about as many months: the first comes when she nearly chokes on dinner soon after quitting her native Louisiana for London – where she enrols at Wexford, a posh boarding school smack in the middle of Jack the Ripper’s old stomping ground.

The location is important, because Rory’s arrival coincides with the start of a series of murders that mirror the Ripper’s infamous, gruesome killings. Is it a copycat at work, or something even more nightmarish?

As Rippermania grips London, Rory encounters a mysterious man who her (adorably English) roommate Jazza can’t see. He’s a ghost, and Rory’s rare ability to see him grants her entry into a team that hunts London’s “shades”… which ultimately leads to her second near-death experience at the climax of the book, as the Ripper’s killings come to a head.

The Name of the Star has some great ingredients: English boarding school hijinks, murders, young people with implausibly awesome jobs with the police. But something about it is all a bit unsatisfying: I wanted the story to be more sinister, more romantic, more London. Johnson only captures flickering senses of the city and the sensational dread of the Ripper’s return, and the plot twists are often contrived; when the villain’s motives were revealed (via monlogue), my reaction was pretty much, “Why would anyone go to all the effort of X just to achieve Y?” And many of the supporting characters fall flat, though others are terrifically vivid – especially Rory’s oft-mentioned, never-seen American relatives.

I really wanted to enjoy this but I just wanted more; it’s less than the sum of its parts. Johnson is a lively, funny writer but The Name of the Star feels like it’s going through the motions of setting up a new supernatural YA series, rather than transporting us to spooky and mysterious London.

 

Book review, Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger

It’s not often that I label a book “repellant”, but Her Fearful Symmetry is a repellant book. (Mild spoilers ahead.)

Books don’t need to be likeable for readers to derive enjoyment from them – the characters don’t need appeal, and the plot doesn’t need to go in a satisfying direction, but there’s got to be something there for you to latch onto. And Symmetry does not have that something.

I liked Audrey Niffenegger’s previous novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife (though I enjoyed the time-travel knottiness of the plot more than the romance, and I can’t tell you the number of arguments I’ve had ((I must’ve had that argument… twice!)) with fans of the book who insist it’s not sci-fi, even though it totally is), and I thought I was going to like Symmetry a lot more than I did. It starts off well: middle-aged Elspeth dies, leaving her London flat to her American nieces Julia and Valentina, the twin daughters of her own identical twin sister, Edie, whom she’s been estranged from for 20 years following a mysterious falling out.

So Julia and Valentina leave the US for the UK, move into the flat and eventually meet their unusual neighbour Robert, Elpseth’s grieving lover, who’s writing a thesis on the next-door Highgate Cemetery. The opening chapters are slow but dreamy, promising a delicately unfolding plot… which never comes.

Halfway through the book steers off Whimsical and into Stupid, and it’s possible to pinpoint the exact moment this happens: it’s when Elspeth, who’s been reincarnated as a ghost but confined to her flat, gains the strength to communicate with Robert and the twins. None of these characters are especially flabbergasted by this, and it’s the first in a series of bung notes.

After that, they come thickly: Valentina hatches a profoundly boneheaded plan to escape the clutches of the gregarious Julia; Niffenegger takes disastrous shortcuts with her characterisations, dubbing Valentina “suicidal” and Elspeth discompassionate even though us readers hadn’t previously seen any traces of those things; and the plotting becomes laboured and detached.

And the finale – blech. Really. Blech. It’s  contrived, especially when it’s revealed why Elspeth and Edie fell out, and worse, the resolution of the main storyline is so horribly off-putting. Like I said in the first paragraph: repellant.

It’s not all bad. Julia and Valentina’s upstairs neighbour is Martin, an obsessed-compulsive crossword compiler whose disease has alienated his wife, Marijke, who’s fled to her native Amsterdam and left him alone in his flat which he refuses to leave. He’s an eccentric, genuinely appealing character.

The other appealing character is Highgate Cemetery and London itself. Niffenegger worked as a tour guide in the cemetery while researching the book (and her devotion to the place is evident), and she nails what it’s like to live in a historically, culturally rich place like London.

 

Book review: The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

I was chatting with a friend not long ago about Neil Gaiman’s writing style, and we agreed that his is an authorial voice you either like or you don’t: my friend doesn’t like it, but I do. A lot. Gaiman has a knack of adapting to whatever genre he’s writing in, but his work always has a sense of the very old, the very deep, and the very strange.

I started The Graveyard Book with high expectations, and wasn’t disappointed: Like all the best children’s literature, it’s wildly imaginative, seductively scary, and a sophisticated read for both kids and adults.

Loosely inspired by The Jungle Book, Graveyard is the story of a baby who escapes from the ruthless killer who’s murdered his parents, and escapes to a very old graveyard. Rechristened Nobody “Bod” Owens, he’s raised by the graveyard’s ghostly  inhabitants and encounters vampires, werewolves, witches and other beasties as he grows up. (The Guardian has a more detailed, though mildly spoilery, synopsis; I recommend going into it without knowing about the plot’s direction.)

It kind of reminded me of Harry Potter, if Harry Potter‘s sprawling story was condensed into a single book: Graveyard has the same magical, captivating and adventurous tone. I felt really sad when I turned the last page, both because of the way the plot wrapped up, and because I’d finished a really great book.

Each chapter advances Bod’s age by around two years and stands alone as a story (more or less), making this a breezy read. If you never read anything of Gaiman’s before, this is a fine entry point. ((After you finish Graveyard, try his short story collection Fragile Things. Then move along to American Gods and Anansi Boys, or maybe Coraline (which I haven’t read, yet, though the movie adaptation is stellar), if you’re looking for more “kiddie” stuff. I haven’t sampled Sandman yet, but I plan on getting to it one day.))

Gaiman has proposed writing more books exploring the backstory of the Graveyard universe, but with a darker, more adult tone – a sort of “The Lord Of The Rings, to which The Graveyard Book would have been The Hobbit“, in his words. I want to read that book so bad. Right now. (Especially since the propects of a Graveyard Book movie aren’t looking so hot right now.)