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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Three Short Reviews: "Swimming Home" by Deborah Levy, "The Lighthouse" by Alison Moore and "The Dinner" by Herman Koch (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

  "As he arrives with his family at the villa in the hills above Nice, Joe sees a body in the swimming pool. But the girl is very much alive. She is Kitty Finch: a self-proclaimed botanist with green-painted fingernails, walking naked out of the water and into the heart of their holiday. Why is she there? What does she want from them all? And why does Joe's enigmatic wife allow her to remain?

A subversively brilliant study of love, Swimming Home reveals how the most devastating secrets are the ones we keep from ourselves"

Swimming Home is a short, powerful novel that just "lives" through its characters and its narrative pull; from the Booker 2012 longlist my 3rd favorite novel and from the shortlist 2nd - I would not mind it winning however unlikely that is.

The setup is explained well in the blurb though there quite a few tidbits that are sprinkled throughout the novel and add a lot and yes there is this feeling of "incompleteness", of author could have written 400 pages and still have something to say about the four main characters of the book - the 57 year old poet Joe Jacobs - JHJ - Holocaust survivor and haunted by his perceived abandonment in a Polish forest at age 5 by his parents, however rationally known that was done to save his life as the parents and his young sister died in the Nazi extermination camps, his
mostly absent war correspondent wife Isabel, their 14 year old daughter Nina and the young Kitty Finch who comes and wreaks even more havoc in their unsettled lives - but so what, the book lives powerfully this way too and shows once again the distinction between books that pull one in and books that are crafted to win prizes.


"The Lighthouse begins on a North Sea ferry, on whose blustery outer deck stands Futh, a middle-aged, recently separated man heading to Germany for a restorative walking holiday.

Spending his first night in Hellhaus at a small, family-run hotel, he finds the landlady hospitable but is troubled by an encounter with an inexplicably hostile barman.

In the morning, Futh puts the episode behind him and sets out on his week-long circular walk along the Rhine. As he travels, he contemplates his childhood; a complicated friendship with the son of a lonely neighbour; his parents’ broken marriage and his own. But the story he keeps coming back to, the person and the event affecting all others, is his mother and her abandonment of him as a boy, which left him with a void to fill, a substitute to find.

He recalls his first trip to Germany with his newly single father. He is mindful of something he neglected to do there, an omission which threatens to have devastating repercussions for him this time around.

At the end of the week, Futh, sunburnt and blistered, comes to the end of his circular walk, returning to what he sees as the sanctuary of the Hellhaus hotel, unaware of the events which have been unfolding there in his absence"

The Lighthouse is a short novel that epitomizes today's state of the art self-centered literary fiction and both what is right with it - occasionally excellent prose and moments of intensity - and what is wrong with it  - lots of pointlessness and "so, what, who cares?" stuff.

Not the weakest Booker shortlisted novel - hard to beat the joke played on the reader that's Umbrella - but a weakish novel for that level as basically it is much ado about nothing; still the writing is absorbing on occasion, but again more the pity that literary authors today are afraid to tackle big books and leave them to competent craftsmen like Ken Follett, though with Hilary Mantel's or Jonathan Littell's successes and the trickle of literary authors hitting it big in genre (see Justin Cronin) maybe the navel gazing of what passes for literary culture will change a little. 

An acceptable but not particularly recommended read beyond the interest from its Booker prize shortlisting.

"It's a summer's evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse -- the banality of work, the triviality of the holidays. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.

Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act; an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children. As civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple show just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.

Tautly written, incredibly gripping, and told by an unforgettable narrator, The Dinner promises to be the topic of countless dinner party debates. Skewering everything from parenting values to pretentious menus to political convictions, this novel reveals the dark side of genteel society and asks what each of us would do in the face of unimaginable tragedy."

The Dinner is a book that is written well and it is quite absorbing, while its controversial nature is more of a reflection of the conflict between the contemporary pc values and human nature than anything else as the decisions taken by the narrator and his wife would be quite uncontroversial in earlier times when family was paramount. So from this point of view, while the slowly increasing tension keeps one turning the pages, the book is ultimately relatively banal when you look at it from a historical perspective.
The other point that I think the book drives well home - intentionally or not - is how today's world is quite fragile and beneath the civilized facade lurk ancient demons, but that's a point that survivors of the attempt to create the "new human" during the last century collectivist dictatorships know very well, even if the contemporary trends towards collectivism in Europe tends to mask it beneath pc rhetoric; this of course until prosperity will break down and the ancient demons will resurface, so The Dinner does well as a warning too: better keep the (relative) prosperity rolling at all costs...

Recommended though not as controversial or as cutting edge as it was made to be.


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