Monday, June 30, 2014

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014)

Sometimes, after a particularly gruelling or busy time with work, I have an inescapable compulsion to stay in bed and read all day long. No TV, no phones - just the printed word and hot, sugary beverages. However, if I am going to commit to a full day in bed drinking hot chocolate and not raising my heart rate above 90, then it needs to be a good book. Thanks to Simon Savidge's glowing review, I found the perfect one and spent last Saturday immersed in a sad yet lovely tale.

Elizabeth is Missing is told from the perspective of Maud, an elderly woman who has Alzheimers. She lives alone but is looked after by a carer and her daughter, Helen, and is slowly losing her ability to remember. As a mnemonic device, Maud writes notes to herself and these notes, whose meaning is often obscure once removed from the context in which they were written, fill Maud's pockets and are scattered throughout her house. There is one note that is repeated over and over again: Maud's friend Elizabeth is missing and no-one other than her is concerned. Amidst the current-day search of Maud for her friend, the story is intertwined with memories of Maud's childhood during the Second World War. Her sister, Sukey, who Maud adores, vanishes, most likely at the hands of Maud's family's lodger Douglas or Sukey's black marketeer husband Frank. The search for Sukey and Elizabeth drive both temporalities of the narrative.

One of the most effective elements of Elizabeth is Missing is the vastly different voices of the young and old Maud. Similarities in tone and character make it clear that the two are the same person but, while the young Maud's thoughts are crystal clear, the old Maud's are clouded and foggy. The entwining of these two stories and the parallel investigations into the disappearance of two women that Maud loves are done really well. In fact, the whole book is done very well - its exploration of ageing and illness are sad but at the centre of this book is the strength of family and of love. It's excellently written, engaging and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Four and a half stars.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Animal People by Charlotte Wood (2011)

Animal People is an Australian literary novel by Charlotte Wood. It follows a man, Stephen Connolly, over the course of a day. We very quickly learn a lot about Stephen: he is dating Fiona, who has two children, he has a troubled relationship with his mother and, although he has a job working in a cafe in a zoo, Stephen is not an animal person.

Stephen knew he demonstrated some lack of humanity by not being a Dog Person. This seemed unfair. He was not a cat person either. He was not an animal person in the same way he was not a musical person, or an intellectual person. One was born to these things, like the colour of one's eyes, or the length of one's legs. Not to be musical or intellectual was unremarkable and provoked no suspicion. But not to be an animal person somehow meant he wasn't fully human. (p28)

The person who gave this book to me said "It's not a long book but it took me a long time to get through." I found the book immediately engaging, so I tore through the first 80 pages quickly. As I read Stephen's reflections on love, family and poverty I kept thinking "Profound! So true!" But by about page 80, the initial infatuation had worn off. I realised that Animal People just like so many contemporary literary fiction novels - a well-written book about a white middle-class middle-aged man wanking on about the meaning of life and the human condition, including the literal wanking that now seems to be a prerequisite of any literal fiction novel (Why did that start? Is it supposed to be ironic? How can we get it to stop?).

Animal People is very well written. It does start off very engagingly. It is great to see an Australian female author doing well in the male-dominated field of literary fiction. But once the novelty of the concept of "animal people" wears off, it's pretty much just the same as all of the other literary fiction out there. If you like hearing male protagonists fretting about potential unfilled and disappointment in how their lives have turned out, then you will probably like this book. I personally think that if Stephen started seeing a therapist and finding the right combination of antidepressant meds, most of his problems would go away. Three stars.