Sunday 25 August 2019

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is darkly humourous and thought provoking. Some of the characters appear in multiple stories and there’s a good sense of cohesion and neat circularity. The opening story jolts you into the seriousness of the content with an innocent black man being shot by police. We then move on to petty office politics, the pitfalls of social media obsession, and competitive parents point scoring against each other. The subjects of the stories have wide appeal and relatability but the normality of the lives depicted make the painful truths that much more stark.

For the younger characters especially there’s a certain amount of conflict regarding their identity. They find themselves in predominantly white environments and some become conflicted, keeping different aspects of their lives separate, adjusting the way they speak or do their hair depending on who they’re spending time with. The book gives us an insight into the challenges facing black people in America today and the ways in which they navigate this.

Relationships are examined in almost all of the stories. We see a mother and daughter falling out over disagreements on YouTube content and the false perfect family image they show to the world. There’s teens struggling to find true connection in a world that never switches off and mothers struggling to look after their children, worn down by the tragedies they witness every day. This is a thoughtful collection that’s full of cutting observations on the modern world. The stories are engaging and sometimes shocking, with a host of characters that capture the imagination. A brilliant read.

Sunday 18 August 2019

Sight, Jessie Greengrass

Greengrass’ debut novel is unapologetically introspective as our narrator questions whether or not she should become a mother. Her decision is known from the start and so it is not that you wait to find out but instead experience all the self-doubt and moral questioning that went into the outcome. In some ways her reservations seem linked to the death of her own mother. The dependence and forced physical intimacy toward the end had a profound effect on her and the absence of a maternal figure that follows makes her question herself. Without a mother she forgets how to be a daughter, something she doesn’t notice until she receives the care of her partner’s mother.

Her relationship with her maternal grandmother has also impacted her deeply. Known only as Doctor K, she advocated for an examined life, sitting with the narrator as a child, teaching her to reflect on dreams and her internal life. She encouraged her own daughter similarly, resulting in the extinguishing of dreams, a fact the narrator has always found sad. The novel is interspersed with sections on historic figures. The most obvious parallels are with that of Sigmund and Anna Freud in which the father psychoanalyses his own daughter with seeming beneficial results. Many readers would question the moral reasoning behind a parent exposing their own child to their analysis, and the narrator finds connections to her own moral musings.

Many of the historic sections deal with consent or the lack thereof, and the narrator torments herself with the thought of bringing another person into being without the chance of them having given consent. She feels keenly the responsibility that in choosing to become a mother she must make herself the best than she can, a task she believes she has failed before her baby has even been born, putting her own comfort first. This guilt and self-doubt do not seem to fade with time. She notes that she is only truly able to love in absence – when she is with her daughter she craves time to herself yet when she gets it wishes she were with her. Many of the thoughts and behaviours she chastises herself for appear to be experiences common to parents.

A refreshing, honest look at motherhood in the modern world. In generations past it would be hard to imagine a book such as this being published, for it to be acknowledged that motherhood is not necessarily the obvious choice and that it is just that, a choice. Greengrass creates a sense of place with great skill and the tangents into the lives of real people are both interesting and add depth. An unsettling but thoughtful read that opens the way for considered conversation.

Sunday 11 August 2019

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Tartt’s much anticipated third novel throws the reader straight in to the action. We meet Theo Decker holed up in an Amsterdam hotel room, hiding from the police. It’ll take another seven hundred pages to show us how he got there. The second part of the opening involves a trip to the Met, an explosion that kills his mother, and the stealing of a precious painting. What follows is a heartfelt, sometimes bordering on the absurd, tale in which Theo finds himself under the care of a number of guardians as his grief and guilt slowly eat away at him.

The story is framed around the stolen painting and although you feel Theo’s anxiety about it being found, it's not ultimately the strain of the story you care about the most. Instead we are treated to a host of characters, all intriguing in their own way. From the wealthy Barbours who take him in initially who are kind but distant, missing the heart of his home with his mother, to Vegas with his perpetually absent father. Finally he finds himself back in New York with a benevolent guardian with links to that fateful day.

Tragedy seems to follow Theo and through this we see a variety of coping mechanisms. Theo’s guilt over the death of his mother and the complete absence of the emotional support needed to process such a traumatic experience makes him turn to drugs to see him through. You’ll often find yourself wishing desperately that someone will notice his pain and help him. In others we see avoidance and pretence in the face of their own tragedies, none of which seem to truly serve them well.

Some of the most moving passages revolve around his unflinching love of Pippa. Glimpsed only momentarily on the day of the explosion, they are reunited briefly before Pippa is whisked away to recover abroad. Much as Theo may try to hide his feelings it is abundantly clear to all who know him that his attachment to her goes beyond friendship. His feelings for her are uncomfortably tied to the death of the person closest to him and it is painful to see how utterly devoted he is to someone who is always just beyond his reach.

Beautiful written with entirely believable characters, your heart will break for Theo. At times a page turner, at others a thoughtful treatise on the value of art, the importance of relationships in all their forms, and the all-consuming nature of loss. Fans of Tartt will not be disappointed.