I’m slightly sheepish in saying that I was happy about “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes because it’s just 163 pages. As I work my way through this year’s Notable Books list, a shorty is a relief.
Barnes is a British writer, and here presents a British story. It’s told by a middle-aged man, Tony Webster, who looks back on his boarding school friendships and early love life.
Tony describes how his school group of three boys grows to take in a fourth, Adrian, who is especially smart and who sees the world a little differently than the others. When Adrian takes up with Veronica, a girl who Tony dated, Tony writes them an ugly letter.Tony heads off for an adventure in America, Adrian commits suicide. Eventually Tony marries Margaret, they raise a daughter, and then divorce. Tony feels himself going along and getting along. Then Veronica’s mother dies, and leaves something to Tony, and this brings back the past. It also brings Veronica back into his life.
Tony wonders what his role was in Adrian’s suicide, in the unhappiness that led to his death. HAD he done something terribly wrong as a youth? Was he responsible for…something?
I confess that when I got to the end of this book and to the revelation regarding this mystery, I had to re-read the ending, and I wished that I had the gumption to re-read the whole book. I went to amazon.com to read what people had written about the book, and was relieved that several had noted that the resolution seemed confusing and underwhelming, given the lead-up.
And that may be what is genius about this book–how remarkably realistic for Tony to look back from the distance of many years, and end up not quite sure.
And is that what makes Peter Barnes a genius writer? That he can get us inside of this man’s head, for good and for ill, and engage us in these reflections? Barnes is known for elegant writing, directing the reader’s attention to the correct place, using just the right word, and yet also shining a glaring light on people’s weakness. I’ll recommend this to my reading friends who are good with a literary novel, good with what is not expected, and good with Barnes’ particular “sense of an ending.”
Last week, I finished “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick DeWitt, a novel from the American Library Association Notable Books List.
Charles and Eli Sisters are hired guns from the Gold Rush era of the 1850s. Eli tells this story of their final job for a man called The Commodore. As the story progresses, Eli makes up his mind to leave the killing business.
I’m trying to find a way to describe the tone of this book–it’s picaresque, in introducing a series of odd somewhat shallow characters. It’s often droll. And it is full of killing. I had to move my mind into a place where I didn’t take all that murder too seriously.
Eli clearly has a bigger heart than his brother. Eli reflects on how he might want to find a woman to marry and love, might want to return to see their mother. Charles seems not to reflect much at all, he thrives on heavy drinking and the adrenaline of taking a good shot.
Why is this notable? DeWitt creates clever scenes and dialogue, and he gives us a whole new sense of the Gold Rush. There’s an inherent irony in a hired killer pining for love and a comfortable home. The stark heartlessness of lives lived solely in pursuit of gold remains visible behind the humor. Hired killers see many people face their final moments, DeWitt makes the most of that opportunity.
My reservation is this–I don’t think that DeWitt’s idea for the Sisters Brothers’ story creates enough momentum to propel a whole novel. It’d be a brilliant short story, and perhaps overall more effective as a short story collection. I’m open to the idea that this may simply be a case of not matching my sense of humor. While I finished “The Sisters Brothers,” it never deeply resonated with me and seldom had me laughing out loud. And yet, there’s something about it that I respect. I expect that I’ll recommend this to people who seek something that is unusual, edgy and clever, and that points up people’s foibles while it reveals their behavior under pressure.
This novel takes place on a ship traveling between Sri Lanka and England in the early 1950’s. Its narrator, Michael, is eleven and traveling without supervision. He befriends two other young men on the ship and the three of them engage in the kinds of adventures one would expect–sneaking into the first class areas, filching food, sneaking a dog aboard.
The book’s title refers to the table in the ship’s dining room where the passengers with the lowest status were assigned. That is, of course, where one would expect to find the most interesting people–and Michael does.
About a third of the way through the book, I began to wonder where it was heading. At that point, it seemed much like a romp of a book, the mood overall light, a quirky cast of characters introduced in succession, with no sense of a narrative trajectory–no problem to solve.
And then Ondaatje introduces some evil and mystery. That dog that one of the boys sneaks aboard bites and kills a seriously ill passenger. A prisoner tries to mount an escape. Michael takes all of this in, only later figuring out how some of the pieces fit together.
At about the same point, the narrator moves away from the voyage to tell some of what happened after. He remains friends with one of his ship buddies and eventually marries that boy’s sister though the marriage doesn’t last. Decades after the voyage, he meets up with a cousin who had been aboard, a pretty young woman who at the time seemed to be involved in some mystery all her own. These time shifts continue until the novel ends with the ship’s arrival in England.
I sensed that the novel lost energy when it left the ship itself. There’s something about a ship story, a group of people confined together, that when written well becomes a delicious soup of humanity.
Each time that I read a book from the Notables list, I reflect on why it was chosen. In this case, Ondaatje is the master of elegant writing, of the effective turn of phrase. The narrator that he creates here strikes a perfect balance of a youngster’s point of view with an older man’s wisdom and regret. Reviewers often use the word “elegant” to describe Ondaatje’s writing–fine choice of words, observations that are spot on, and that sense of writing so well done that it calls no attention to itself. Applying such elegance to so quirky a group of characters as in “The Cat’s Table” is a lovely irony.
I’ll recommend this to readers who often choose more literary novels, seeking the qualities that Ondaatje weaves into this fine sea story.
Just this morning I finished Francisco Goldman’s “Say Her Name,” an autobiographical novel about the death of his young wife, the writer Aura Estrada. The book has won many accolades, and is included on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books List.
The basic story is that Goldman was an established writer in his early 50s when he fell in love with and in 2005 married the emerging Mexican writer, Aura Estrada, who was in her mid 20s. Just short of their second anniversary, she died following a swimming accident on a beach in Mexico.
Goldman casts the story of their courtship and marriage, her death, and his life since then, in sections that move in time and in place. It has the sense of how one would expect such a story to be told, with one memory providing a nudge that reminds the author of something else that seems unrelated and yet highlights or foreshadows what will come. This backing and forthing continues until finally at the end of the book, Goldman describes what happened on the beach that day and just after.
I was interested in why Goldman chose to tell this story in a novel instead of as a memoir. What he said in an interview in the Paris review, “I have never liked the memoir form because I tend to think that memory fictionalizes anyway. Once you claim that you are writing a narrative purely from memory you are already in the realm of fiction.”
What a perfect book for book groups–there is the marital relationship made more interesting with the difference in their ages, the intense relationship between Aura and her mother, the striving of Aura as a writer with a dream of success, her balancing of Mexico and America, and of course the exploration of grief and loss. I doubt I’m the only reader who takes a little too much interest in what writers are like, and so book groups can add the added incentive of looking into these closets and cupboards.
I’m reflecting on my own internal score for this book–Goldman writes so well, well enough that this tribute to Aura is worthy of her, and I sensed that he was honest about himself, even when being honest meant revealing things that I didn’t much like. Thinking a little more about it, I see that this book grew on me in a way that I admire. I wasn’t instantly pulled in, but Goldman managed to make me want to know more, to continue to read about Aura, and to fathom and face his loss.
Here’s my short assessment of “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach. It’s a fine book with a fabulous first half. As a reader and evaluator, I’m so overwhelmed by the unfulfilled promise of that first half that I may be underestimating the second.
But to back up–this is a baseball novel combined with a coming-of-age story. Its focus is Henry Skrimshander, a remarkable shortstop. Henry’s fielding ability is witnessed by a catcher who is able to wangle Henry a place at Westish College. Henry’s magical talent transforms the team…until he loses it. And then his friends, his teammates, and all who have been introduced in this novel adjust their orbits around his misery.
Other aspects of the story include the life of a small liberal arts college, the first motions toward a gay relationship by the college president, the return of the president’s prodigal daughter, and the coaching brilliance of that catcher.
Harbach is a wonderful writer, combining a sense of Henry’s transcendent talent with the everyday details of college, of roommates, of part-time jobs. He takes an often wry approach, even as he describes scenes artfully, maybe wistfully. I thought to myself that he strikes the tone that I sense Jonathan Franzen going for, of telling a story with a clever voice, from a perch that allows the teller to know an awful lot, when the teller honestly likes the characters, warts and all.
I absolutely loved the first half of this book, with Harbach introducing characters in lovely order and a perfect pace. This part of the story seemed so clean, so lusciously straightforward and true. What happens after that just didn’t live up to the promise. The drama of sexual betrayal, the ongoing suspense of Henry’s inability to play, the awkward introduction of a counselor who untangles Henry’s issues, they seemed like too many condiments on a perfect hot dog.
I can’t bring myself to dislike “The Art of Fielding,” and I do think it’s fair to describe it overall as a good book, a fine baseball story. I’ll recommend this to fiction readers, to people who enjoy contemporary settings, to baseball fans, and certainly to book groups. It’s easy to see how it earned its place on this year’s Notable Books list.