Dans le jardin de l’ogre- Leila Slimani

Having studied– and absolutely adored– Chanson Douce as part of my undergraduate degree, it only felt natural to see what else Slimani had to offer. I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed for two reasons: Chanson Douce is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time, and Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes had recommended Dans le jardin de l’ogre on The High Low and I’d trust their advice on just about anything.

Of course, I could have read the english translation of the book, but I wanted to experience Slimani’s true writing style- I didn’t want anything to get lost in translation- literally or figuratively.

 

From the very first page, I was hooked. I can’t quite put my finger on how Slimani does it, but she just makes her characters so captivating. We’re never told how to feel about them, and all narration is pretty neutral, but it’s clear that we aren’t supposed to judge Adèle in the way that the rest of a conservate French society would. Yes, on the surface, her incessant need for sexual arouse is grotesque, but this narrative is about so much more than a promiscuous woman, but rather a woman that wants to feel needed and necessary.

Slimani picks apart the hypocrisies within patriarchal discourse through this protagonist. She apparently has it all: she’s middle class, is married to a successful man, is mother to Lucien and has a successful career. Yet, she still isn’t satisfied. However, rather than persecuting the character for this, Slimani presents the facts frankly. We don’t judge Adèle for her infidelity or for the fact she doesn’t love motherhood wholeheartedly, but we are encouraged to empathise with her desire to be desired- which takes over all other desires.

While others have criticised Slimani for the lack of depth to Adèle and the clichés that run throughout the narrative, I think these factors serve to emphasise the premise here. Adèle’s life fits the bill of society’s ‘ideal’ woman on paper, but this job spec doesn’t accommodate for real women with real needs- and that’s what’s so bizarre.

If you want to read something that allows you to understand a woman’s sexual desires and desire to be objectified without rendering her passive and powerful, read Dans le jardin de l’ogre. If you enjoy writing that makes you feel a little uncomfortable, conflicted and makes you question your prejudices, read Dans le jardin de l’ogre. Of course, I can’t say a lot for the english translation– it’s perfectly possible that Slimani’s intentions weren’t conveyed effectively– but, in my opinion, Dans le jardin de l’orgre is fantastic.

The Break- Marian Keyes

I’m all aboard the I-hate-kindles train and truly believe you can’t be a proper physical book, but there’s no denying their convenience. Especially when you read as fast as I do and you’re going on holiday- packing seven books in hand luggage just isn’t really doable. But I wasn’t going on holiday this week. In fact, last weekend I didn’t go anywhere, so I decided I would give into my craving of a proper book- with actual pages!

I really  wasn’t up for venturing any further from my house than the local park, so my book-purchasing locations were limited to my local Tesco.  I had actually gone with the intention of buying another book (you’ll read about that next week!) but they didn’t have it. Determined to go ahead with my plans of reading in the park, I decided the selection would have to do. I saw The Break, and remembered hearing about it on Dolly Alderton’s podcast Love Stories when she interviewed Marian herself.  Now, I trust pretty much anything Dolly likes, so I was more than happy to pick it up.

It was clear from the very start that Keyes just gets people. I instantly knew the characters and could hear their voices and see their faces from the moment I started reading.  This familiarity meant I immediately invested in them. I was instantly defensive of Amy, and the flashbacks to her former life only intensified my empathy. It was very apparent that she didn’t really have her life together, but she got by perfectly well, boosted by the strength she had gained along her journey through life. I liked this about her; she was relatable and imperfect, like all the best characters.

What Keyes does so well is portraying human nature, showing that feelings change and so do people- especially when their husbands announce that they’re leaving for six months. This meant that I wasn’t Amy’s biggest fan for the entirety of the narrative. Yes, I understood that she was doing the best with what she had given the circumstances– and there’s no denying the hardships she goes through with Neeve and Sofie– but, probably because I was rooting for her and Hugh to work, I got incredibly frustrated with her at times. Even when she was at her happiest- or so she thought.

I found myself willing the traffic to just be a little worse, or wishing my lunch break would last just a little bit longer, just so I could read a few more pages. I had a feeling everything would sort itself out, but I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to happen. And each time I thought I had figured out how it would unfold, another speed bump appeared and delayed my expectations.

For the most part, I found The Break highly amusing – the way Keyes captures how families interact is second to none, and actually reminded me a little of my own family. Amy’s father is a particularly funny character. However, I also had my fair share of tears- especially towards the end of the narrative, which certainly distracted from the sweltering conditions on the bus journey home. It was the first time in a while a book had made me feel that much, and I really loved it.

The ending, though not 100% conclusive, left me satisfied- which doesn’t happen often (do I just have really high standards?). I would absolutely recommend The Break to anyone who just wants a book they can get into; a narrative that they can invest in. Go read it!

 

 

 

How I Lost You- Jenny Blackhurst

On first appearances, How I Lost You ticked all the right boxes: a gripping thriller with a twist.

For the first few pages, I did feel a little confused. I couldn’t quite comprehend who was narrating, and why there were different names floating about..but now I realise that this might have been intended, reflecting the confusion that Susan feels herself.

This confusion meant I didn’t quite understand whether or not I was supposed to identify with Susan, and I held her at quite a distance for the majority of the narrative. In fact, I felt quite ambivalent towards all of the characters in How I Lost You and I was never sure if all was exactly what it seemed, or if they all had ulterior motives. This is by no means a criticism. It was actually very interesting to be kept on tenterhooks as to who could be trusted and who could not.

I think Blackhurst’s use of the parallel narrative, focusing on certain events in the past, was really useful in adding extra depth to the plot in a much more sophisticated way than characters simply discussing the past. It was also quite satisfying in the way that it acted as a tool with which I could start to decode the book’s present and gauge how to react to and understand certain things that are referred to.

Though the main premise of the narrative is a constant theme, and the driving force behind everything that unfolds in the plot, there are also a number of other key themes, which I suppose reflects the real-life nature of the book. Or, at least as real-life as something like this can be….

My criticism would be that the resolution seems to unfold a little too conveniently, with everyone involved only too ready to help, and those who are guilty too easily let off. Having said this, the narrative does end on a semi-cliffhanger, and does leave a lot to be explained which, I suppose, does leave room for further problems to arrive, even if they aren’t addressed directly.

I certainly would recommend How I Lost You, particularly if you are looking for a book that doesn’t necessarily tell you how to feel from the start, and want to work things out for yourself!

Love & Gelato- Jenna Evans Welch

I chose Love & Gelato without even reading the description. The title was enough for me : summery and playful. I presumed this book would simply be about falling in love in Italy, without much else to the narrative, but I was pleasantly surprised. You needn’t be put off by what some might describe a ‘sickly sweet’ title (pardon the pun, given the gelato reference), as it’s not all about romantic love, there’s something a little deeper in there, too.

I like Lina, the main character, because she doesn’t fall into any stereotypical categories of teenage girl. Rather than being delighted to spend her summer in Tuscany, dreaming of catching a killer tan and finding herself a gorgeous Italian husband, Lina couldn’t be less fussed. It’s very clear that she’s only there because it was her late mother’s dying wish, but she’d really rather be at home.  During the narrative, she’s wary about everything that comes her way,  rather than jumping at the chance to go to the parties she is invited to, she considers her option. This whole attitude is quite refreshing and it makes her character seem more realistic, as she doesn’t fit into a cookie cutter category.

In fact, the author seems to have a gift for creating characters, as each with a major role in the narrative really did feel real and relatable, and I had no problems with creating mental images of them, or their voices. Her trick seemed to be not overloading, as each character serves a real purpose, and each get their own ‘screen time’, so to speak, However, I do feel that I would like to learn more about them, and spend more time with each character, so I definitely would be interested in a sequel.

Soon after arriving, a couple of things happen that, though she might not realise at the time, change her entire opinion on staying in Italy. The most important of which is her mother’s journal, which helps her on the quest to find her father- a journey which is not quite as smooth or romantic as one might hope or imagine. The journal is a great narrative technique that allows us to learn about Lina’s mother and hear her voice, without her having a real presence in the narrative. This makes it easier for the reader to make judgements later on in the book, where her honesty is questioned.

Though Lina’s such a likeable character, and I really did want the best for her for the entirety of the book, the ‘bumps in the road’ did make for a better read. I was unsure of how the story would resolve itself, and was pleased to see it perhaps wasn’t what I might have imagined from the beginning.

Love & Gelato kept me interested from start to finish. Perhaps not because it was the most complicated story, but instead because the characters all seemed so genuine, and I cared about what was in store for them. The great thing about this book is that it explores love on multiple levels, and ends with an important lesson about what love can mean (on more than a romantic level). I don’t have any criticisms of Love & Gelato, it was just the sort of heartwarming book I love.

After You- Jojo Moyes

Even though I hadn’t read the prequel to After You, I had thoroughly enjoyed it in its film version, which meant that when my mum offered this book to me when she had finished, I snapped it up. And as I had expected, the book kept me interested the entire way through.

I think it did help that, having seen the prequel on screen, I already had a good idea of the how Louisa Clark (the main character) and her family worked as characters, and the dynamic between them. This means that I didn’t have to spend any time getting to know the characters or their situations, allowing me to just ‘get on’ with enjoying the narrative.

I liked how Moyes continued straight onto the narrative of this separate story, spending very little time referencing back to what happened in the characters’ pasts. Admittedly, this would make it difficult for anyone who wasn’t familiar with the prequel to fully understand, but I do think that most people reading this would choose to do so because of the prequel.

Louisa Clark is the perfect protagonist: the girl who wants to move on, and is trying, but is evidently terrified. Hopeless at most things, yet confident in who she is as a person, and her intelligence shines through in her wit and humour. It was also great to see how she had developed as a person from when Will was alive, and how Lily’s character meant that, in a strange and complicated way, she got to continue her relationship with Will, to the point that they had not able to reach before his death. She, in a way, got to become the mother of his child- and it was interesting to see how she reacted to such situation.

In fact, it seemed that, instead of Lily acting as a painful reminder of Will that dragged Louisa back to the state of intense grieving just after his death, she actually helped her to move on from him. All the time that I could see Louisa changing and transforming, I felt almost proud of her- as if I knew her.

I think the fact that no one, unless those heartbreakingly unlucky enough to have experienced it, can begin to imagine how it must feel to lose the person you love through their own doing, means that readers sympathise even more with Louisa as a character. This was certainly the case for me. I don’t even want to imagine the reality of such a terrible situation, meaning I wanted, more than anything, for her to come out of it a stronger person- her full personality still intact.

The great thing about After You is that it’s just the right cocktail of sadness, hope and humour that makes you want to read it more. I was always ready to turn the next page, and move onto the next chapter- disappointed when I didn’t have enough time to do so. As if 400 pages of the narrative weren’t enough, I found myself wishing the story continued- not because I didn’t feel it had reached a good enough conclusion, but because I didn’t want to leave Louisa Clark as a character.

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone- whether you have read the prequel, or just seen the film. Familiarise yourself with the prequel and get stuck in. It is truly worth it.

 

 

 

 

Le Ventre de Paris- Émile Zola

Texts that deal with the subject of the dynamic between the rich and the poor, or the upper  classes and the working class people have interested me for a while, so this Zola novel seemed an obvious choice.

Apart from the fact that it is a Zola novel, meaning it is by no means an easy read, it was not a let down!

From the very start, as is usually the way with Zola, the description of settings and scenes made for a very vivid image of the characters and their surroundings. I found Zola’s use of metaphor, using food to represent a person’s position in society or among others, particularly interesting as I had never seen social class represented in such a way before.

I also found it very interesting how he uses the microcosm of the Parisian market to represent the goings on in the city on a larger scale. It means that the reader is able to establish a better sense of ‘knowing’ each character, because of the small-scale setting, meaning they can predict how a character may react towards certain situations later in the narrative. The microcosm setting also means there are fewer characters to ‘get to know’, which is important for a long novel, but also means that it is easier to see character development within each. Personally, I mostly enjoyed seeing the development of Lisa, as I think her character shows the most change, particularly towards her brother in law, Florent.

On the same subject as Florent, I believe that he worked as a brilliant protagonist. I found it incredibly easy to empathise with and sympathise for him, constant willing the best for him for the entirety of the narrative.

What I particularly liked about Le Ventre de Paris is the fact that it shows that one’s position in society is not fixed, and because of this changeable nature, it is not to be taken for granted. I liked seeing how, not only characters facing the changes reacted, whether they were climbing up or falling down the social ladder. It was also interesting to see the cut-throat nature of business and money-making from the perspective of someone writing in the 19th Century, and how it is not so different from modern day attitudes and behaviour.

Overall, whilst it is by no means an easy book to read, I would definitely recommend persevering with Le Ventre de Paris , even if for nothing more than to see the difference between the effects of capitalism on people and their personal relationships in the 19th Century fiction and in our own experiences in the modern world.

Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years- Sue Townsend

Back to normal this week with a book review!

Due to the sheer amount of belongings that I had to bring to France, I was unable to bring any physical books, so (because I don’t love reading on my Kindle), I was delighted to discover that the family I am living with have an impressive array of books to choose from- both in English and in French. I was even more delighted to see that  Adrian Mole: The Prostratre Years  was on the shelf. I had only read the original (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4) when I was much younger, but I really did love the book, and had heard good things about the many sequels, so naturally this was my first choice.

The thing that first struck me was that Townsend’s style of writing and way of presenting Adrian’s character had not changed at all from the first book. Although much older, the awkward teenager Adrian that I remembered was still entirely apparent, just in the form of a married father. I think this added to the humour of the book, as it was clear to see that, even with years of life experience, Adrian failed to fit comfortable into society. Not only was this funny, but it meant that I still felt the same endearment towards Adrian as I had the first time I met his character. I shan’t ruin the narrative (though I do recognise that it is an old book, so you may have already read it), but I love that even when the central points of Adrian’s life begin to fall apart he does not even seem to flinch. It is as if he knows that his reaction isn’t even worthwhile, and almost as if he expects no less.

I also loved the character of his daughter Gracie. I felt that her mischievous behaviour added further to the humour, thus further to the sympathy I felt for Adrian. It is as if nothing, not even his child, can really go to plan. Likewise Mrs Mole, she is the same overbearing, somewhat cringeworthy working class mother that I remember from the first book of the series. Once again, this simply adds to the general picture of hopelessness that appears to be Adrian Mole’s life. Some might say that characters are over the top, and ‘too much’, and I have to admit that in other narrative situations I might agree. However, there is something about Townsend’s Adrian Mole series that makes allowances for this.

As with the original book, I love the diary style narrative. Not only does it suit Adrian’s character very well, as if he has no one else but his diary (thus the reader) to confide in. I also find that it makes it very easy to read, and allows the reader to realise the progression of time in the narrative much more easily and much more naturally than if  a narrator were to explicitly draw attention to it.

I really like that the book is very clearly set in 2007, and brings much attention to this through the conversation about contemporary events (for example Gordon Brown becoming Prime Minister and the failing of Northern Rock). Instead of dating the book, as one might expect, it, once again, adds to the humour. Even though I was young in 2011, I can remember hearing people talk about such events, and seeing them on the news, which means that I can actually read the book with a knowledge and opinion only gained through hindsight.

Overall, I couldn’t recommend this book enough! It was packed with the humour and embarrassment and awkwardness that I know and love from the original, and it simply consolidates Townsend’s ability as an author, and proves how well she know this fantastic character. I would perhaps suggest that you read the original book first, in order that you gain a sense of who Adrian Mole is as a character, so that you can ‘get’ the book a little more. I am definitely now intrigued to read all of the books in between that I have missed out on!

 

 

Down and Out in Paris and London- George Orwell

Having been a fan of Orwell’s writing style in 1984, I didn’t hesitate to read Down and Out in Paris and London when one of my sixth form teachers recommended it to me. Perhaps it is just because I am nosy, but I really like to read about other people’s lives, especially the lives of renowned writers, so Orwell’s memoir was always going to be a winner! What’s more, given my interest in France and french culture, and the fact that I have spent the last two years living in London, the idea that the memoir tells the story of what happened both in Paris and in London appeals to me greatly!

 

Firstly, I must say how raw Orwell’s writing is, and how brilliant I found this. He spares the reader of nothing, meaning that we get to experience poverty in the cities in the same way that Orwell did himself (well, as much as is possible without actually experiencing it first hand). As a result of this, I had vivid images of the scenes in my head for the entirety of the memoir, thanks to the author’s genius use of figurative language.

 

I love that in publishing the book, Orwell was flouting all expectations of literature at the time. He exposed the squalor and hardships faced by the poor working classes, which was so consciously kept hidden from the middle and upper classes- the main audience for contemporary literature, given their almost exclusive access to education.I also love that, Orwell shows that being exposed to, and forced to live in, such conditions does not result in desensitisation: no matter how long one is forced to live like an animal, it never ceases to be disgusting, repulsive and upsetting.

Of course, there is very little that I can say in terms of plot, given that the book recounts real-life events. However, I can say that it was seeing the progression throughout the book, as well as Orwell’s changing opinion of the poor (he summarises his changed opinions at the very end of the text) is actually very eye-opening, as a modern reader, and would have been rather scandalous in the thirties, I imagine.

The lodging houses, or ‘spikes’, as Orwell explains they were referred to by those who frequented them, and soup kitchens were my favourite aspects to read about in this memoir. This is perhaps because they were the most shocking  aspects, but also because it allowed Orwell to ‘zoom in’ on individuals in both cities, meaning the reader can experience a different range of people in such poverty.

 

I would, without a doubt, recommend Down and Out in Paris and London to anyone with an interest in people or places. For the book’s entirety, I truly felt like I was a fly on the wall in the situations that Orwell found himself in. What I like most is that, even though the text is a non-fiction memoir, it could easily be mistaken for a fictional novel- it is just that interesting and carefully written!

 

 

 

 

Mrs Dalloway- Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway was on one of my university module reading lists, and I really thought that it deserved a review. Being very short at under 200 pages, it was a pleasant change from the Victorian novels I had been used to, and actually meant that I was much more alert for the book’s entirety- aware that every word would matter. I certainly wasn’t wrong about that, it was such an intense read, with every page packed with ‘stuff’- in a good way! I found myself highlighting and underlining all the time, and not merely for academic purposes, but simply because there was just so much that I thought stood out. It was refreshing to read a book that had so much to offer on every page, even though the timeline of the narrative is only actually one day and only really follows preparation for one party.

 

The fact that this book is set around World War I instantly appealed to me, as it is a subject I can’t ever learn enough about, and the fact that it is written by a woman added to this appeal because so much war literature is dominated by men.

 

I can’t avoid the truth that the narrative is a little confusing, and only really upon my second and third readings did I really get the book. Mrs Dalloway, if you didn’t know, is written with a ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative. This means that point of view that the narrative is told from can change without notice- even between sentences.  Once you have gotten to grips with this, it actually makes for a brilliant read, allowing you to realise how everyone’s thoughts do sort of merge into and follow on from each other in daily life.

The book deals with the issue of PTSD in a very subtle way through the character of Septimus Smith and his relationship, not only with other people, but the world in general. Woolf noted his reactions to such small details that I might never have considered would affect a sufferer, and how this altered his relationships with other people, notably his wife. I really believe this gave the book a new level, and was great to have a character developed in such a way.

On a similar note, Woolf’s attention to detail throughout the entire narrative really was second to none, and her use of figurative language and imagery means that no questions are left as to why Mrs Dalloway is such a timeless classic. One part that particularly stands out to me is close to the beginning, describing the public’s reactions to planes in the sky post war, and the fact that no one can yet fully comprehend that they will not cause harm as they did in previous years.

 

I would wholeheartedly recommend Mrs Dalloway to anyone regardless of age, gender, or anything. It doesn’t matter that it was written almost one hundred years ago- I believe that everyone has a lot to learn from Woolf’s literature. If nothing else, it allows you to see where modern types of stream of consciousness narrative may have got their inspiration from, and accomplishes such a narrative far better than I have ever read before. Virginia Woolf- a true literary genius.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enfance- Nathalie Sarraute

Another French book, this time. Given that I shall be relocating to the French Alps in under a month for my year abroad (eek!), I thought I should start making a conscious effort to practise my language abilities to prevent turning up and not understanding anything. I chose Enfance by recommendation. It was on some of my friends’ reading list for a module at university, and they spoke highly of it, so I decided to give it a go.

 

At first, I was confused. No, my ability to read French hadn’t disappeared; I just did not get the narrative technique to begin with. Sarraute, as the narrator, converses with an interlocutor, which, once you realise, is not difficult to grasp, but does require concentration. This shouldn’t put you off reading Enfance, though, I think everyone who reads the book (biography/memoir/life-writing?!) would agree that it actually makes the narrative a lot more interesting as it forces the reader to consider the reliability and authenticity of narrators, particularly in autobiographical works.

 

In the same vein, I enjoyed the book because of the fact that it pulls into question the idea of reliability- not only of the narrator, but also of our own memory. As well as wondering if the events in the book are real, one is encouraged to consider whether events in our own lives really did happen as we remember them, or if we have (albeit sub, or even un, consciously) edited them out of convenience.

 

As well as calling memory into question, Sarraute’s story also calls for a reconsideration of family figures and parental roles. It is safe to say that Sarraute’s mother does not conform to stereotypical characteristics of a mother, which means her father is almost forced to compensate for this. As a result, I could not help but feel pity for Sarraute, and the incredibly lonely life, or at least childhood, she appears to have led. However, what makes this even more touching is that Sarraute never overtly asks for the reader’s sympathy. In fact, she doesn’t even explicitly tell the reader that she was lonely or unhappy- it is just clear through the fact that her only friend is her toy bear, and that her favourite thing was handwriting, simply because she could control it, and it is this very lack of self pity that made me pity Sarraute more.

 

I think I liked Enfance so much because it was so different to anything that I had read before. I have read autobiographies and similar such texts, but I don’t think I had ever read it in this form. In fact, if the reader did not know anything about Sarraute before reading the book, it appears to have such a strong narrative that it might be mistaken for a novel written in first person narration.

 

Overall, I would very strongly recommend Enfance, for French speakers. I would be resistant to recommend an English translation, simply out of worry that the style would not be effectively translated across languages. I don’t think the book has a specific audience in terms of age, which makes it a perfect read for everyone.