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Tuesday 15 January 2019

Review: Sally Rooney, Normal People

This novel does get a lot better in its final seventy pages, but for a couple of hundred pages it is simply too normal and I did not want to turn those pages. It’s a regular, non-experimental novel, regular length, regular structure. It is dialogue-based between a small cast of main characters and the dialogue is fine, but not extraordinary. The characterisation is fine, but not exceptional. The plot is repetitive - that’s the point - though with  revelations introduced,  but perhaps not enough of them.

It’s a coming of age story or, more grandly, a Bildungsroman set in a contemporary Ireland from which the priests and the fascists have been eliminated and the currency is the €uro. It’s a novel which could only have  been written there in the fairly recent past; fifty years ago, it would have been banned even if conceivable and the author would have gone to live in a free country.

The core story of the on-off relationship between Marianne and Connell from school days to graduate studies is well developed, often delicately so, and only towards the end did I feel there were moments of authorial intrusion into their evolving consciousness - pages 198-99; p 221; p 239, for example. There are very few jokes and I suspect that the humour at page 235 where a man lays down the second half of a football match for his woman is unintentional.

For an older reader like me, there were a few puzzles. I get the bit about being interconnected via social media, but Rooney’s characters live in a world where gossip is the norm, and where people are very anxious about their current gossip-status. Is it really that bad? Is that what it’s like for normal people? Likewise, they cling to their groups, so that the school group lives on even after everyone has gone their separate ways. For some people, the rule is surely never to go back but rather to keep on moving away. In this novel, no one does that even if they travel and study in foreign countries.

The novel could be compared to Elif Batuman's The Idiot about which I wrote here on 24 June 2018, but whereas I did not finish Batuman's book, I did finish this one.

Saturday 12 January 2019

Review: John le Carre, The Little Drummer Girl

This is a very long book, 640 pages of reasonably spaced text in my edition. Published in 1983, the story is set within the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The setting remains much as it was, nothing much has changed there. The book does not have a dated feel at all, which is surprising given that it mobilises a great deal of then-current contextual information.

It is not the most popular of le Carre’s books and one can see why.  Though an enthusiast, my attention weakened during Chapters 6 and 7 which record an extraordinarily long and intense interrogation of Charlie, the main character, by agents of the Israeli security services. It is only much later in the book that the pace quickens and we are hooked into a Who will Survive and Who will Die narrative. I made it to the end. Like A Perfect Spy, it is a novel of great emotional intensity.

Google won’t tell me who it was who said that the same causes which make one person a Protestant on this side of the Pyrenees would have made them a Catholic on the other. I think it was Voltaire but maybe it was John Stuart Mill. But le Carre’s novel could be thought of as a prolonged, and profound, exploration of that theme. He finds a way of showing how one could believe at the same time both in Israel and the Palestinian cause. Know enough, learn enough, and you will find your loyalties totally divided. Only ignorance or accident of birth on this side or the other side of the Golan Heights could lead you to plump uncritically one way or the other.

He achieves this result by inserting his main character into both sides of the conflict. She is recruited into the Israeli cause, as their agent, partly on the basis of her public espousal of the Palestinian cause. This makes it possible for her to act credibly when she is inserted deep into a Palestinian terrorist group, but that then also puts her in tension with her sponsors and her agent-runner, Israeli Joseph who doubles as Palestinian Michel until both are totally confused in Charlie’s mind. All this is very well done, in detail and in depth. And I read the conclusion of the book as at best ambiguous and more likely as an expression of the view that, joker or thief, there is no way out of here. That’s the legacy of  what is now a long century of history.