Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Great Reads for April 2011

by Julia Kuttner

Blackout, by Connie Willis

BlackoutThe year is 2060.  Time travel has been  perfected and it is now possible for scientists and historians to travel back through time to ‘observe’ and experience defining times in world history.  Oxford University is home to a thriving laboratory of highly skilled technicians who can send scholars anywhere to a century and an event that they wish to study and experience, complete with authentic clothes provided by wardrobe, and mannerisms, accents and information implanted for the period of time they will be away.  Nothing can go wrong;  all contingencies have been covered – except for a slight problem of ‘slippage’, the hours or even days that the arrival and departure times might be erroneous.  Nevertheless, it’s considered a minor inconvenience and three historians travel back to 1940, to London and the Blitz, experiencing at terrifying first-hand the sleeplessness and fear, the grief of losing friends and loved ones, and the indomitable courage and collective good cheer of a people under terrible siege.  Ms Willis describes the bombing raids to such good effect that the reader feels right in the thick of action that she really would never want to experience; there are many well-drawn and engaging characters, in particular two cockney child evacuees, dreadful but wonderfully engaging and Ms Willis, in spite of her American origins, gets all the accents and idioms right for the most part -  any errors left can be attributed to careless editing .  This is a rattling good read and we are inexorably drawn on to the sequel ‘All Clear’ for at the conclusion of ‘Blackout’, the worst has happened:  the three historians’ access to their own time has been blocked; ‘The Drop’ is no longer working.  They are trapped.
Sadly, Ms. Willis runs out of steam in ‘All Clear’, which appears to be a direct continuation of the story - that would be fair enough, were her plot not to become bogged down in a lot of extraneous detail, soul-searching and rhetorical questions which this reader found tiresome in the extreme.  This is disappointing, for the first book is fast-paced and has genuine passages of quality writing:  her description of the evacuation of Dunkirk is gripping and meticulously researched, her characters believable and brave in their ordinariness.  A reader commented on the remarks sheet of ‘All Clear’ after reading it: ‘ One book too many’.  Fair comment.

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

FreedomTen years ago Jonathan Franzen wowed the literary cognoscenti with his superb novel ‘The Corrections’, and that world has been waiting with breathless anticipation ever since for the next opus.  Jonathan Franzen writes about families:  in ‘The Corrections’ he explored the lives of  two protagonists in a very long marriage, and the relationship between them and their children to hilarious and stunning effect;  the American nuclear family at the turn of the century was laid mercilessly bare by his astute and incisive observations, but all was softened by his wonderfully Dickensian humour.
Now we have the long-awaited second novel, once again about  families, flawed and almost titanic in their awfulness, and again Mr. Franzen softens his ruthless dissection of contemporary American society with delicious and much-needed wit:  sadly for this reader, the recipe doesn’t seem so wildly successful the second time around.  I realize  that I am a lone swimmer against the tide of literary adulation and sparkling reviews from those eminently qualified to know, but I still feel that Mr. Franzen has not done justice to his characters – his exploration of what defines freedom for each of them gets bogged down in nit-picking and navel-gazing, WHICH SHOULD NOT HAPPEN!  For Walter and Patty Englund deserve better treatment from their creator.  They meet in college;  Walter is a shy, decent, hard-working intellectual, a passionate advocate for the environment  studying for a law degree - and always attracted to the unattainable, in this case Patty Emerson, a talented basketball player and very damaged member of a high-achieving family.  Naturally, Patty is barely aware of his existence, being much more attracted to Walter’s disreputable room-mate and friend Richard Katz, leader of a punk band of no repute.  ‘Richard is an itch she must scratch’!  Sadly this doesn’t occur until after Patty and Walter have been married for some years, Patty having been worn down by Walter’s goodness and deciding that to be an awesome wife and mother to his children is her destiny.   What Happens Next, the awful consequences of a steamy tryst to scratch the itch, loses impact with long-winded digressions into the family origins of Walter and Patty, an equally verbose section devoted to their utterly self-centred (thanks to Patty) and odious son Joey and his long-running affair with next-door neighbor Connie, and Walter’s liaison with an impossibly glamorous Indian P.A. named Lalitha.  I have to say that my eyes were rolling like marbles and the ‘Yeah, right!’s were coming thick and fast:  Mr. Franzen’s characters  weren’t just unlikeable, but scarcely credible,which is a great shame.  A writer of his talents and undeniable artistry should have romped away with his story and the reader;  instead he compels us all to amble slowly through a maze of time-wasting side-streets before reaching Home, and an impossibly pat and happy ending – not that I’m against happy endings per se, but why didn’t he end with ‘And They All Lived Happily Ever After’ and be done with it!    

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