A Mercy

by Toni Morrison

I picked this up in the library, having read Beloved which I also recommended for our book group.

This book seemed to be to be more accessible than Beloved (which some of our book group members described as ‘magical realism’, though I would strongly resist that description).  A slave girl in the seventeenth century undertakes a hazardous journey.  The story shed light on the conditions of slaves in the earliest years, and of the journeys they undertook – by force – from their native Africa.

From a historical point of view, this was an interesting read, though the story and characters themselves are not memorable.

He Knew He Was Right

by Anthony Trollope

I couldn’t bring myself to finish reading this book, compelling though it is.  The main character is just so wrong, though he ‘knows’ he is right, in suspecting his wife of adultery and then going to great lengths to act out his suspicions.

The TV version of the story, with Bill Nighy as a magnificently nonchalant and laid-back Colonel Osborne (the suspected lover) does the story justice, and I ended up watching this and abandoning the book halfway through.

Nonetheless, I can recommend this book, if you can stomach it.

The Sound of Things Falling

by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

A book club choice.

It took me a long time to get ‘into’ this book.  The first half is mainly concerned with the story of Antonio Yammara, who gets injured in crossfire when a slight acquaintance of his, Ricardo Laverne, is shot dead in the street.  Antonio’s slow recovery from his physical injuries, and his growing obsession with Ricardo’s story, are the main substance of the first half of the book.  The second half is Ricardo’s story, which Antonio learns mainly through an encounter with Ricardo’s daughter Maya.

I found Antonio’s character unappealing; he has a fairly casual attitude to his relationships, including that with the woman who is expecting his child at the time of the shooting, and with Ricardo himself.  He obsesses about Ricardo’s story, at the expense of his life with his own partner and child.

Ricardo and Elaine come across convincingly. The work and structure of the Peace Corps and its activities are described in some detail. The author gives the impression, rightly or wrongly, that involvement of Peace Corps members in the drugs trade was rife.  I find it a big jump to believe that Ricardo’s daughter Maya should have such detailed inside knowledge of her parents’ lives, feelings and even sexual encounters.  This is a narrative device, I know – but it didn’t ring true. This aside, Ricardo’s story is gripping and interesting. There is an absence of judgment from the author on any of the characters, but somehow also a lack of compassion.

The structure of the book was unconvincing.  Ricardo’s story is mainly told in the second half.  The narrative talks about how significant the drugs “wars” were in the 1980s and how they affected everyone’s life – but this is only illustrated in the case of Ricardo and Elaine.  The reader has to take it on trust that others’ lives were affected in equally dramatic ways.  Maybe a Colombian reader would empathise readily with this.  For me, it was not such an easy jump.

The language used is very rich, and the author paints vivid pictures of the settings, particularly the various houses in Bogotá and the surrounding countryside.  This was the aspect of the book that moves me most, and will probably stay with me.

This book left me wanting to know more about the drug wars in Colombia and the effect that they had on the population, and especially young people in the 1980s.  I don’t feel qualified to say whether Ricardo and Elaine were in any way typical.  They certainly don’t seem to be special, as people or as types.  As an introduction to the topic and as an introduction to this author, the book works.  As a story with compelling characters and a gripping plot, it didn’t work for me.

 

Life Sentences

by Laura Lippman

I picked this up in the library. The story gripped me – I had envisaged it as a mystery or thriller, but in fact it was neither.  True, there was a story that unravelled, and an explanation towards the end as to the real background to Calliope’s conviction and subsequent jail term.

The character portrayal of Calliope was moving and believable; the reasons for her silence over the events surrounding her baby’s death less so.  Key to the story is the narrator’s character development as she learns the truth about her parents’ relationship.  She is a writer, whose success has been based on two memoirs she wrote concerning her own and her parents’ lives.  These are now seen to have been based on lies and assumptions.

There are some good story threads and some potentially interesting characters, but somehow the story doesn’t hang together very satisfactorily.  The settings described – different households in suburban Baltimore – ring true, and indeed I find I can still picture them now, two weeks after reading the book. Possibly too many characters – fewer, more sharply drawn character might have worked better.

The Casual Vacancy

by J K Rowling

I held off reading this when it was first published, being somewhat wary of the hype, but also the less than encouraging reviews.

The BBC screened a three-part adaptation of the novel in February 2015, which I watched on catch-up. With an impressive cast, a good script and excellent direction, I found the story and characters engrossing. So I latterly decided to read the book.

I was not disappointed. Rowling’s use of language is exemplary, as evidenced by her Harry Potter books. The novel has a huge cast of characters, each of them believable and human.  Some, like Howard Mollison, are shown in an overwhelmingly negative light.  But they all have their flaws, and if anyone can be seen as basically ‘good’, it is Barry Fairbrother himself (who dies at the very beginning of the story) and, perhaps, Krystal.

The story is compelling and also convincing, though I felt that the changes made for the TV production, and in particular the changed ending, enhanced the story rather than diminishing it.  I felt drawn into the world of the small town of Pagford, and I could utterly believe in the petty squabbles and more worrying antagonisms that can cause untold damage in people’s lives.

One last thought: I read somewhere that the story bears parallels with J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.  I am not sure whether Rowling had this story in mind when she wrote this novel.  The story is significantly different – for one thing, there is no ‘inspector’ character acting as a prompt to the other characters to reveal their actions and motives.  To some extent, the ‘ghost of Barry Fairbrother’ may fulfil this role.  But the way in which small gestures born of apathy, ignorance, contempt or fear may influence another person’s life in a momentous way – this comes across vividly in this novel.  And yet it is not didactic.

I would read this again.