Monday, 20 January 2014

We Are Water, by Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb has done it again – produced another gripping page-turner that is impossible to put down until the eyes refuse to cooperate any more, and that’s saying something considering its doorstop size.  The reader, as always, gets maximum bang for the buck!
Mr Lamb tells us the story of the Oh family, using this family as metaphor for the modern face of America, its cultural and sexual diversity, changing racial divisions, and its response to great and terrible events.
Annie Oh is getting married for the second time – to a woman.  She was married for twenty seven years to psychologist Dr Orion Oh, giving birth to three children, twins Ariane and Andrew and later ‘the mistake’, Marissa.  Now she has fallen in love with Viveca, a wealthy New York Art dealer and Gallery owner, and the champion of Annie’s nascent artistic career.  They intend to marry in Three Rivers, a small town in Connecticut;  Viveca considers it charming and symbolic, for here in Three Rivers one of Annie’s works was judged Best in Show, giving her the impetus and confidence to continue with the burning compulsion she has to make Art:  unfortunately, Three Rivers is also the setting for the entire length of Orion and Annie’s marriage, the place in which their children grew up, and despite Orion’s despairing acceptance of a situation he cannot change, he draws the line at Viveca’s wish to have the ceremony in the Oh family home.
Every family member has a turn at narrating the story, a literary device which Mr Lamb uses very skilfully:  Annie is na├»ve, uneducated and wounded by a terrible childhood tragedy in the first section of the book;  later, as her career develops and her reputation grows she gains in sophistication and wisdom – but still is the keeper of childhood sorrows she can never share with anyone, let alone her husband and family. In time, those secrets have terrible repercussions for them all and how each family member reacts to each new trial that presents itself is beautifully and convincingly realised.
There is a fascinating subplot, too, involving the Oh family home:  more than fifty years before, a suspicious death occurs there.  A negro employee of the house owner is found dead, stuffed head first down a well on the property:  the death is never fully investigated, and to the outrage of the coloured community a verdict of accidental death is returned.  The rumour mill works overtime, but the truth is more awful than the most lurid gossip:  ugly racist secrets lie buried beneath a veneer of small town friendliness and respectability.
Mr Lamb has given his readers once again what they are accustomed to expect of him:  a superbly story that picks them up and carries them on the crest of its narrative wave until it dumps them on the shore, emotionally drenched but thinking ‘God, what a trip!’ 
This reader will ride the literary wave with Mr Lamb any old time: most highly recommended.

Bridget Jones - Mad about the Boy, by Helen Fielding

It gives me great pleasure to announce the return of Bridget Jones, calorie counter, Nicorette muncher, wine glugger and comfort food abuser in times of great stress – and Bridget’s life is constantly stressful.  She is also a Diarist extraordinaire and compiler of To Do lists upon which nothing gets crossed off:  so what, you might well ask, is new? 
Bridget’s life is still hopelessly disorganised, but with several crucial differences:  since last we met around ten years ago, Bridget has married her Mr. Right, Mark Darcy;  they are the proud parents of two beautiful children;  he has a successful career as an international human rights lawyer and they are more happy than a nuclear family has a right to expect – until Mark is killed whilst negotiating the release of two British hostages in the Sudan.
Bridget’s diary opens four years after she is made a widow.  She is now past fifty with two small children - ‘Heavens, darling – why did you leave it so late to have children?’ says her hopelessly out-of-emotional-touch Mum, who should realise without having a brain transplant that Bridget hadn’t fallen in love and married Mark until her forties.  Better late than never, Mum.
But Bridget is not coping well in her new role as a solo parent.  She is bereft, alone and lonely.  She misses Mark and yearns for him constantly;  his comforting and solid presence, perfect foil to her role as arch procrastinator and mistress of indecision:  now she has to make every choice herself and she is failing miserably.
Enter Bridget’s motley collection of loyal and loving friends, all in their own way living less than perfect lives but determined to see her restored to their idea of stability - put bluntly:  she needs a shag!
Our heroine is suitably horrified.  She couldn’t possibly!  A shag would be unfaithful to Mark’s memory.  She’s too overweight from all the comfort food consumed which didn’t do its job.  She has no idea, nor does she want to find out, about all those internet dating agencies or how to register with them.  There are no babysitters.  And besides (and most importantly) she has nothing to wear.  What’s a gel to do?
Feel the fear and do it anyway, that’s what!  The hapless Bridget’s adventures in the 21st century dating world are poignant, hilarious and sharply observed, as are her forays into the foreign field of screenwriting – a modern version, she decides, (set in gloomy Queens Park to lend to the tragic mood) of ‘Hedda Gabbler’ by Anton Chekhov.  Bridget still has a lot to learn about literature, life and love – even at her age – and sets out to do so in her usual endearing, laugh-out-loud and hamfisted fashion.

Ms Fielding writes as ever with great comic style, ruthlessly chronicling our texting and twittering world yet still achieving that fine balance between comedy and tragedy so crucial to this story.  It may be that this is the last time we read about Bridget and her friends, which is a shame:  what a story!  What a gel!  What fun!  Highly recommended.             

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