Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

"The Ghost - A Cultural History" by Susan Owens (Tate Publishing, 2017)

Ghosts have changed over the years. John Donne said he saw a vision of his (living) wife. Samuel Johnson was open on the ghost question. Richard Burton (of Anatomy of Melancholy fame) studied the documentary evidence through the ages, and this author does likewise.

  • The witch of Endor in the bible summoned up the ghost of Samuel.
  • "While a modern ghost might materialise, drift gently towards a door and disperse, in the medieval period it was more likely to break the door down and beat you to death" (p.9)
  • The Reformation got rid of Purgatory, which was a source of returning spirits.
  • "The rise of pamphlets towards the end of the sixteenth century coincided with two other decisive factors: a skeptical attitude to pre-Reformation religious doctrine and a growing cult of personality" (p.42)
  • "Having lost their traditional role at the Reformation, ghosts were ripe for re-invention ... They became obsessed with seeing justice done. Ghosts found a natural home in revenge drama" (p.46)
  • "Marlowe's drama conformed to the latest state of post-Reformation opinion (that 'ghosts' were actually spirits and not the souls of the dead)" (p.49)
  • "As they were represented in ballad form, ghosts ... put things in order that had been thrown into disorder." (p.92)
  • Around 1660, the rebuttal to Hobbes' materialism was that people who didn't believe in ghosts and spirits probably didn't believe in God or any principles of religion.
  • "One of the main reasons for ghosts wearing white was to do with the colour of grave clothes ... the Burial in Woollens Acts began to come into effect [in 1666] decreeing that English wool must be used for shrouds" (p.164)
  • By 1730 "a sceptical attitude to ghosts had become a litmus test for membership of intelligent, urban society" (p.107). Hoaxes (e.g. the Cock Lane ghost), when revealed, were opportunities to mock the gullibility of the masses.
  • "For Wesley, apparitions and other supernatural phenomena served as evidence of the spiritual realm." (p.111)
  • In the 18th century "The churchyard began to exert an irresistible magnetism for poets" (p.115). "Over the course of the eighteenth century it became fashionable to appreciate ruins" (p.121)
  • "Until Walpole wrote Orlando, ghosts had generally been regarded as symbolic figures ... Walpole revived the medieval idea, expressed in saints' biographies, that ghosts could be visitors from the distant past, stirred into violent retributive action by injustice" (p.124)
  • "It was Lewis [writer of The Monk] who caught the mood of the times. He insisted on the physicality of ghosts" (p.125)
  • "In the second half of the eighteenth century, the idea of the sublime introduced the concepts of terror and wonder as emotions to be pursued" (p.126)
  • "Romanticism, with its focus on the expression of intense emotional states and subjective, individual experience, was transforming the arts ... inventing a bold visual vocabulary to express the ghosts" (p.132)
  • Shelley wrote "We talk of Ghosts; neither Lord Byron nor Monk G. Lewis seem to believe in them; and they both agree, in the very face of reason, that none could believe in ghosts without also believing in God" (p.138)
  • "At the end of the eighteenth century, a new kind of social satire emerged which simply presented ghosts as funny in themselves - both for their peculiar physiognomy, and in the effect of their appearance on their victims" (p.162)
  • "the late eighteenth century also saw a more general change in the appearance of ghosts: it was a time when a range of sartorial options became available to them" (p.164)
  • "It was only in the late eighteenth century that ... they became see-through ... concurrently with developments in optical entertainments and light shows ... In visual art, this new quality was also to do with an increasing use of the medium of watercolour ... When Dickens made Marley's ghost see-through in A Christmas Carol, he was drawing on a convention that had only relatively recently been established ... In time, purportedly true accounts of cloudy or see-through ghosts began to be recorded" (p.168)
  • "a strong connection was made between ghosts and the aristocracy: ghosts were walking evidence of a family's antiquity" (p.177)
  • "Victorian ghosts were shaped by the demands of the magazine format: stories had to be brief, gripping and sensational" (p.190)
  • "In the middle of the Victorian era ... The British stopped being afraid of ghosts, drew the curtains and tried to usher them in ... Crucially in most quarters (if not all), spiritualism was not regarded as a challenge to Christianity, but as complementary, even affirmative" (p.200)
  • "Early photography was almost uncannily predisposed to the creation of ghostly images " (p.204)
  • "Ever since the Reformation, [British artists and writers] had mostly described ghosts visiting people in their urban environments. In the late nineteenth century ... they began instead to find them deep in the country" (p.222)
  • "from the 1890s until the Second World War, artists and writers took ghosts out of the historic mansions and urban homes they had so vigorously haunted for most of the Victorian era and re-located them in the heart of the country, down leafy lanes, deep within ancient barrows and along the routes of old pilgrim-paths" (p.9)
  • "the post-war years and 1950s turned out to be relatively lean ones for ghosts ... As people's imaginations were captured by space exploration ... the traditional place of ghosts was quickly usurped by aliens" (p.249)
  • "Norman's book is one of an enormous number of works published from the middle of the century onwards that discuss and list British ghosts in such detail" (p.254)
  • "ghosts have been liberated from the confines of their habitual haunts and let loose in a larger arena" (p.263)
  • "Now liberated from the margins of visual culture and from ghost-story ghettoes, ghosts' rich emotional potential, whether as metaphor, Gothic reality or something indefinably in-between, is decisively shaping art and literature " (p.267)

So ghosts survived for several reasons -

  • Belief in ghosts opens the way to belief in spirits, angels and gods
  • They're a useful literary device - a wander in a graveyard would lack drama without them
  • Urban legends - publicity stunts
  • Mental problems

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

"Tinkers" by Paul Harding (Windmill, 2011)

It begins with "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died. From the rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room, he saw insects". He's 80. We find out about his life. We read about his father Howard, an itinerant salesman -

He thought, Buy the pendant, sneak it into your hand from the folds of your dress and let the low light of the fire lap at it late at night as you wait for the roof to give out or your will to snap and the ice to be too thick to chop through with the ax as you stand in your husband's boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars, the soundproof lid of heaven, that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half-frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein (p.24)

which is perhaps Howard's lyricism - he has epilepsy and strange pre-fit states. I presume the following is the Georges's voice -

There was another oil painting hanging above the desk, this one of a packet schooner sailing out of Gloucester in stormy weather. It was a scene of roiling dark greens and blues and grays swarming around the lines of the ship, which was seen from the rear. The insides of the very tips of the waves were illuminated from within by a sourceless light. If you watched the straight lines of the schooner's masts and rigging (storm up, the ship was not under sail) long enough in the dim light of an early evening or on a rainy day, the sea would begin to move at the corners of your vision. They would stop the moment you looked directly at them, only to slither and snake again when you returned your gaze to the ship. (p.32)

He mends clocks. We learn what the parts of a clock - the escapement especially - do. As well as delving into the past, there are flash-forwards - on p.34 we read about how he wife later lived for years in a retirement complex.

In section 2 his father bites him during a fit. His mother takes him to the doctor. He needs stitches. He sneaks away from home. He doesn't get far - his father soon finds him, following his tracks. Then his father goes. In section 3 we go back another generation. Howard's father, a churchman in mental decline, is taken away. Howard does country walks in an attempt to connect somehow with his "quiet, strange" father. Section 4, the final section, begins with a return to George's death-bed. Somebody's always at the foot of the bed -

I was just thinking, the person said in a silvery voice, I was just thinking that I am not very many years old, but that I am centuries wide. I think that I have my literal age but am surrounded in a radius of years. I think that these years of days, this near century of years, is a gift from you. Thankyou. Now, let me read you something to get you back to sleep
Cometa Borealis: We entered the atmosphere at dusk. We trailed a wake of fire. We were a sparkling trail of white fire hurtling over herds that grazed alluvial plains. The purple plains: steppe and table, clastic rocks from an extinct river strewn over the bed of an extinct ocean. Perhaps, far away, there was a revolution - the storming of a bereft fort built on the bend of a remote, misty, woods-shrouded river

"As George died, the dark blood retreated from his limbs ... it evaporated and had left a residue of salt and metal along the passages of his dry veins. ... His bone-filled feet were like lead weights that were held by his dried veins - his salt-cured, metal-strengthened veins, which were now as tough as gut, as strong as iron chains. It was as if it would be possible to reach into his chest and grab the very vessels leading from his heart and pull at them and hoist the heavy bones of his feet up through his legs and trunk until they hung just below that nearly exhausted engine" (p.183). I can imagine readers thinking that such thoughts are inappropriate, or unrealistic. Then "His face was pale. It no longer showed expression. True, it showed a kind of peace, or, more precisely, seemed to predict that peace, but such peace was not a human one" (p.183). I have my doubts about the "more precisely" ploy.

At the end we learn that Howard remarried, and went back once to his old house. George's last memory is of that visit.

Strange things happen to time in the book-

  • "the whole event seemed as if it hadn't actually happened outside of my imagination. In fact, it seemed not to happen at all, but, rather, suddenly, to have happened" (p.148)
  • "After glancing away for a moment to look at the first robin of spring, I looked back at the canoe and the Indian had vanished without sound, without, seeming, even movement, but, rather, had been reabsorbed back not only into trunk and root, stone and leaf but into light and shadow and season and time itself" (p.149)

Throughout there are fragments I like -

  • "George looked surprised at his reflection, as if after a lifetime of seeing himself in mirrors and windows and metal and water, now, at the end, suddenly a rude, impatient stranger had shown up in place of himself, someone anxious to get into the picture, although his proper cue was George's exit" (p.52)
  • "My mother opened the outside door and the light came in and carved every object in the kitchen into an ancient relic" (p.138)

There's a typo in p.149 - "faher" instead of "father".

Other reviews

  • Jay Parini (Harding slips in and out of dialogue without quotation marks. He jumps from thought to thought, centred in the consciousness of old George but never confined to it. Stories are layered within stories ... Harding never tires of painting the scene with prose that, here and there, edges toward the poetic with a little too much muscle, reaching for metaphors that don't quite work)
  • Peter Scott ( This is a difficult novel; narrators and narrative are unreliable, the syntax is complicated, while the plot, such as it is, jumps around so much as to elude any easy attempts at identifying a temporal progression of events. Yet time is absolutely central to Tinkers. ... Among the many triumphs of this novel, Harding enables a reader to look at the world differently, without the things that normally encumber experience. Tinkers is a considerable achievement.)
  • interview with Motoko Rich
  • William Palmer

Saturday, 9 June 2018

"The Golden Mean" by John Glenday (Picador, 2015)

Poems from Ploughshares, Atlantic Review, etc. 8 are "after" a poem/poet.

The poems on pages 3-6 might serve as a sample of the book. They brought out a range of reactions in me. I didn't like "A Pint of Light" - a little idea, and little development of it. I preferred "Self Portrait in a Dirty Window", where there's more play of conflicting concepts - reflection vs transparency, mimesis vs imagination, etc. "Primroses" seems to be getting over-excited about not much - pumped-up poetisms. "Algonquin" made me suspicious too because it uses some tricks of the trade: things forgetting themselves, an unseen lone bird - "Late mists/ forget themselves"; "Somewhere not here, a loon calls/ out the word for darkness twice,/ then turns into the silence and its song". One of these poem's in triplets, two are in couplets, and one has 7-lined stanzas, which seems pretty much random to me.

At times reading the book I feel manipulated. "The Lost Boy" ends with "silence is their only song", which sounds familiar. It takes more than a mention or two of "song", "night", "moon", "angel" or "soul" to make me feel the mystery of everyday objects. A phrase like "one song to hang like nothing over everything" might be viewed as a paradox pointing towards a deep truth. Alternatively it could be formulaic humbug. The wild indents and line-breaks of "Only a leaf for a sail" don't help.

And yet ... I like the idea of "The Walkers", much of "The Constellations", "The White Stone" reminds me of Eluard (but what do the line-breaks do?) I like "Fireweed" and "Rubble". "Our Dad" has a sonnet's layout, though it's prose.

Other reviews

  • Gail Wylie
  • Edmund Prestwich (Writing like that embodies a process of careful advance and withdrawal in which every step takes its meaning by being a development or qualification of the steps taken before it. ... Ultimately, no doubt, it’s true of all short poems that the meaning of the parts depends on their relationship to the other parts and the whole, but it’s particularly true of Glenday’s, because of their extreme economy and the way their meanings are found in their step by step self-adjustment. As a result they’re often peculiarly resistant to paraphrase or even understanding ... For me, the absolute triumph of the book is the final piece, “The Walkers”)

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

"Ragazze Mancine" by Stefania Bertola (Einaudi, 2013)

I have trouble with large casts of characters, and in this book new characters keep arriving, so this write-up is partly to help me recall who's who.

Adele (32 years old, degree in literature, never had a job) wakes to find that her husband Franco has left a message saying that they're penniless (he's sold the house she's in) and he's gone off with a woman. He's left her with Zarina, the woman's dog. Ruggero, Franco's brother isn't much help. She stays for a while with her mother, then in a flat offered by a friend Eva (28 years old, 50kg), who has a toddler, Jezebel, whose father was in a rock band - Rovaniemi Cowboys. She's a drummer.

While Adele's out with Eva, Clotilde Castelli (a talk-show host, and also an expert on Serbian poetry) notices that the pendant around Eva's neck is the one she lost years ago. Clotilde's son Cristiano (36, father died when Cristiano was 26), has an agricultural company) endeavours to retrieve it, phoning Eva's brother.

Adele's brother has found her an ironing job with Marta Biancone - a divorce lawyer married to Umberto (useless, but attractive to women and he's a count). Marta's a friend of Clotilde. She asks Adele if she knows a driver because Umberto's license has been taken away again. Eva becomes Umberto's driver. Marta notices the pendant she's wearing. Eva invites him to Montezuma, where groups play - he's interested in meeting new types of women, and is excited by punk female singers. He gets fleeced.

Meanwhile, Manuel De Sisti (pianist and womaniser) is ending his stint in an Egyptian hotel. He heads for Torino, to surprise Clotilde who he's not seen for years. Adele decides that Cristiano would be a good 2nd husband for her, mainly because he's well off, she's broke, and she enjoys a life of leisure. They also both had a childhood love of Lego. Then she sees Tommaso (Cristiano's younger brother, though she doesn't know that), the most beautiful man in the world. Men see through Tommaso's charms quite quickly. Not so women. He's used up his share of the family's wealth, and has been imprisoned for theft. At his mother's behest he's changed his name to "Manuel De Sisti". His mother pays Tommaso to steal the pendant when Cristiano's attempts seem to be floundering.

Guenda Molteni joins the cast. She's Ruggero's wife. They have a company - "Say Sexy" - selling tacky goods.

Marta's colleague, Maria Consolata Greco, tells her that the Dany Delizia novels might no longer be written. Clotilde's secret passion are those trashy novels. Marta suggests to Clotilde that she was well qualified to be the next author of the Dany Delizia series - anonymously of course.

Marta has 2 sons who live in Australia.

Adele sleeps with the poor but cute "Manuel".

At Umberto's 60th, Tommaso plays the piano while Adele and Eva help with catering. Tommaso's identity becomes clear to all. Adele sees Umberto with Clotilde and realises they've been having an affair for years - information that's a useful bargaining tool.

Eventually, Adele decides she'll live with Tommaso (who she loves, but he's poor) rather than Cristiano. However, Tommaso likes Eva. Eva doesn't like him. Tommaso gets a copy of the pendant made so that both women should be happy. However, a number is stamped on it which isn't exactly copied. The number matters. Clotilde from her hospital bed tells Marta that the number open a safe with 200,000 euro that belongs to her sons, though they know nothing about it. Partly through revenge, and perhaps because it's fair, Marta helps the boys open the safe. Cristiano says he doesn't need the money. Tommaso takes it. Instead of driving away with Adele as planned to start a new life, he leaves alone. But Eva catches up with him, Adele becomes a servant in Marta and Umberto's house, and gets back with Cristiano.

It's part comedy, part fast-moving farce, though there are many allusions. For example, chapter headings usually include names, amongst which are some surprises - Diana Dors, Bob Wilson, Ellen Terry, Gramsci, etc., and little jokes along the way - e.g.

  • "approfondire il rapporto fra poesia e make-up, due strade per eludere la banalità dell'essere" (p.21)
  • "Quando Umberto parla di un «piccolo» problema, si tratta sempre di roba fastidiosa, prolungata, che s'insinuerà nelle sue giornate come un virus nei computer che non sono Mac" (p.40)

Other reviews

Saturday, 2 June 2018

"Emerald City and other stories" by Jennifer Egan (Corsair, 2012)

First published in 1989. Stories from The New Yorker, GQ, Ploughshares, etc. The back cover says that "Elegant and poignant, these stories are seamless evocations of self-discovery".

In stories the protagonist is supposed to undergo a change. In the first story, "Why China?", the main character (a father on holiday with his family who meets someone who swindled him years before) undergoes a different change in relation to each of several of the other characters - he befriends his elder daughter, confesses to his wife, etc.

In "Sacred Heart" the working's more visible. Sarah, a ninth-grader at a girls-only religious school, is a "great admirer of Jesus Christ" and has a crush on a new girl, Amanda. She sees Amanda self-harming in the toilet and is invited to help her cut. She does. Sarah doesn't like her step-father, though he's a nice enough guy. She can't bring herself to call him "Dad" or "Julius". Sarah "would gaze at our thin Jesus perched above the altar and think of what violence he had suffered ... And I found, to my confusion, that I was jealous of him". Amanda runs away from school with her drop-out brother. Sarah, at home, self-harms more than she meant to (it's her first time) and has to call for help. Only her step-father's at home. To attract his attention she has to call out "Dad" and "Julius"! Months later she goes to buy shoes for a date with a boy. Amanda's working in the shop. When Sarah leaves, she thinks "I breathed deeply, inhaling the last of her smell, but it lingered, and after several more blocks I realised that what I smelled was not Amanda. It was myself, and this day of early summer".

"Passing the hat" follows the thoughts of a woman who's about to leave the neighbourhood where she brought up a family and belonged to a group of friends who partied, skied, re-married and earned good money. But one of them killed herself. "When it comes to memory, I suppose, we're all passing the hat" ... "I watched her face arrange itself around the cigarette, as if every crease had been formed by this act. Strangely, I had an urge to smoke one myself, which I hadn't done since college" ... "I've become a smaller version of myself, distilled from an earlier abundance I was not even aware of".

Recurrent themes are - blood; affairs that the innocent spouse discovers years later; attempts to recall the details of a significant event that happened years before; meeting acquaintances in unexpected places (China, Spain, Santa Barbara, an out-of-town bar); expectations of fame; ending the first section/paragraph with a story-setting statement ("And of course, I disliked her instantly", p.100; "The truth is, I'll take anything I'm given", p.128).

There's defeatism too - "As I plod back, I am filled with a dismal triumph. I feel relief, the relief of being one step closer to something inevitable. The pleasure of ceasing to resist, of giving up", p.131; "She ... wishes she were daring, risqué, all the things she has never been and will never be", p.150.

As when reading other well-written stories, I got into the habit of noting the "Chekhov's guns". Sometimes I would have preferred surprise to the satisfaction of closure. I liked how the main character's profession in "The Stylist" becomes a metaphor for a way of life. I liked the ending of "The watch trick", the leap in time putting the events into perspective. It made me like the piece more than I did while reading it. I liked "Sisters of the Moon". And the others weren't at all bad.

Other reviews

  • Good reads
  • Chris East
  • Kirkus review (11 somewhat strained stories that seem suited to the glossy venues in which they first appeared (e.g., GQ and Mademoiselle): They're slick if utterly predictable lifestyle studies that entertain very conventional notions of conformity and wildness. Most often, Egan's financially successful protagonists yearn for the simplicity or adventure of their previous lives ... Egan's stronger pieces are told from a young girl's point of view and usually involve some sort of small, if intense, revelation ... The lure of adventure and the lust for wealth in Egan's schematic little fictions are just yuppie fantasies; she seldom gets beyond the cliches of money and personal crisis.)

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

"Horses of god" by Mahi Binebine (Granta, 2010)

On p.2 we learn that the first-person narrator, "Yachine", is a ghost. He can contact the living, but there are rules. He died without regrets at 18 in Casablanca. Before then he and his mates rummaged on the municipal dump for things to sell. We learn about the gang members. It's rough in the shanty town - there are careless deaths (bodies buried in the dump), all-male gang-bangs, glue-sniffing and prostitutes. The fun part is that the gang have formed a football team, "Stars of Sidi Moumen", which is in a local league.

On p.65 he watches his funeral. We learn that he was a suicide bomber. On p.94 we learn how Abu Zoubeir fundamentalised Yachine's older brother and gang-leader. The brother has the authority to influence the rest of the gang, who acquire greater self-respect and isolation from society, and a greater dependency on Abu Zoubeir, who introduces them to some authority figures. One thing leads to another. They will gain the keys to paradise.

The writing (or the translation - it was originally in French) seemed a little loose at times. For example, in "He'd shoot us a side-ways glance, enviously, sending subtle signals to find out the results of the matches we were playing without him. If his uncle noticed, a vengeful slap would fall like lightning on his face. He'd growl at him, calling us every name under the sun" (p.24) the vocabulary seems too sophisticated ("vengeful"?), or evasively "telling" rather than "showing" ("enviously"? "subtle signals"?). Later though, on p.76, we're told that Yachine's become more articulate of late - "When I was alive, I wouldn't have been able to describe her as I can now. I wasn't taught the words to convey the beauty of people or things" (p.76).

Other reviews

  • Lucy Popescu (Binebene movingly portrays the path from disillusionment to violence, and Horses of God is a timely reminder of how poverty crushes hope and breeds hatred.)
  • Michael Adelberg (Horses of God has some difficult moments. As with many translations, parts of the original text translate awkwardly, i.e., Yachine’s girlfriend’s breasts are “ripening pears.” More troubling are discussions around homosexuality—including a scene in which the boys rape one of their male friends. The treatment of this topic reads as otherworldly in book that is otherwise very realistic. The misalignment is not necessarily the fault of the translator, just recognition of the enormous gap between traditional Arab thinking and the modern American mind on certain topics. )
  • goodreads (57 Reviews)

Saturday, 26 May 2018

"The book of memory" by Petina Gappah (Faber and Faber, 2015)

Memory/Mnemosyne (a negroid albino born in Zimbabwe in the 70s) was sold by her parents to Lloyd (a white, about 35 at the time) when she was 9. Now she's on death row ("the first woman in more than twenty years to be sentenced to death", p.26). She's trying to appeal, helped by Vernah Sithole.

It's a first-person novel, rocking back and forth in time. The conceit is that Memory (Memo for short) is writing her life up for a journalist, Melinda Carter - "If I am to tell you the truth, Melinda, I had not expected that I would enjoy this. I am enjoying these words, crafting sentences ... I am writing to keep myself alive. But I am also laying out the threads that have pulled my life together, to see just where this one connects with that one or crosses with the other, to see how they form the tapestry from which I will stand back to get a better view" (p.85). There are witty allusions and big words ("stertorous" and "strident" in one paragraph on p.49), which at first seem inappropriate for the character. However, we're told that Memory was "first out of all the four classes of grade threes" (p.34), and later we discover that she went to Cambridge University.

She points out on p.78 that Zimbabwe is a country of immense contradictions. So is she - a white-skinned black born into a black household, raised in a white; born poor, raised rich; wrong but right. No aunts or extended family.

In part 1 there's lively observation of street life, life in the townships, and prison life.

In part 2 we learn more about her time with Lloyd. It seems odd that an apparent stranger would put himself at risk like this - we're told "It all seems so utterly improbable./ and yet it happened" (p.138). At first she's not happy - "Crippled by fear and longing for home, I was saved by books" (p.164). Much later she's angry when she discovers that she and Lloyd share the same lover, a successful young black male artist, Zenzo (that either relationship started at all is a surprise). She anonymously tells the police about Lloyd's homosexuality - another surprise. She wants to get away, manages to get into Sidney Sussex Cambridge where she meets Simon (who?) - all dealt with in a paragraph. But for a month, she stays away 10 years. On her return much has changed in the country - white farms are being repossessed. She finds Lloyd dead. Botching an attempt to spare his dignity, she opens herself to accusations that she murdered him.

In the short 3rd part we learn a little about her family tree, how dangerous her mother was. She begins to question the accuracy of her memories and interpretations.

Plot-wise, you need to suspend disbelief. Several of the plot turns seem unlikely, even when explanations are subsequently attempted. The first day in Lloyd's house and at Cambridge must have been a shock, but are barely recounted, unlike the events on the day of Lloyd's death. Given the sort of person she is by then, her actions on that day are surprising. Was she making amends for the embarrassment she'd caused earlier with the police? She says "You will understand from this that I was clearly not thinking straight" (p.227).

Other reviews

  • Becca Rothfeld (these scant philosophical forays are the most nuanced part of a novel propelled almost exclusively by cheap suspense. Its tone, which is self-consciously literary, and its plot, which treats us to the standard bouts of amorous obsession and familial turmoil, are flavorless fare with little lasting force. ... “The Book of Memory” contains all the elements of made-to-order profundity, copied from the familiar templates ... Gappah’s book cloaks its aphoristic abstractions in the trappings of shallow lyricism, hoping that we might mercifully mistake melodrama for substance.)
  • Anita Sethi (There are sections that could have been more fully developed, such as Memory falling in love for the first time, and occasional inconsistencies in voice are jarring, but these glitches aside, this is a moving novel about memory that unfolds into one about forgiveness, and a passionate paean to the powers of language.)
  • Sarah Gilmartin (The novel spins around various mysteries: why did no relatives ever come to visit the family in Mufakose, why did Mnemosyne’s loving father agree to send her away, what did Lloyd and his mansion in Unwinsidale have to gain, what drove his adopted daughter to kill him decades later, did she really kill him or is it just another wrong in a long line of wrongs? As it seeks to tie all the disparate strains together, the book’s impact lessens significantly in the final quarter. Too little of Mnemosyne’s life with Lloyd, her relationships with the white Rhodesians, or with social climbing artist Zenzo, whose character is introduced far too late, is depicted for the reader to truly connect with this part of the story)
  • Nichole Perkins (a fiercely vivid novel that in some places — particularly, unfortunately, its opening pages — takes itself too seriously. Some paragraphs there are loaded with foreshadowing and sentimentality — but this is just an awkward warm-up for a book of song and color.)
  • Hamilton Cain (Gappah ingeniously weaves Shona words and constructs into “The Book of Memory,” sometimes mid-sentence, underscoring the tensions between the legacy of European colonialism and African desire for self-determination. As the novel builds to its startling resolution, Gappah illuminates a Zimbabwe in transition, framed by an old-fashioned murder mystery. Crisply written, wryly humorous, “The Book of Memory” attests to her astonishing talent.)