very behind in writing about the books i’ve been reading this year. thought i’d cover a handful at once to catch myself up a bit.
#4 the little stranger by sarah waters
this is a classic spooky ghost story written in an engaging, engrossing, gothic style. i devoured this book. set in england in the 1940s it follows the decline of hundreds hall (an 18th century estate that has fallen into disrepair) and the steady ruin of the ayres family who live there. the central narrator is dr. farraday, a country doctor from humble beginnings who is called to treat one of the maids at the house, who is said to be suffering from hysteria of sorts, but in truth is frightened by ooky spooky vibe of the house, most of the rooms have long been abandoned. farraday begins a friendship with caroline ayres, the unmarried daughter of the family, and latches onto a treatment opportunity with her brother roderick, who was severely wounded as pilot in the second world war. as the novel progresses he gradually becomes further entrenched in the family’s strange behavior and the odd goings on in the abandoned rooms of hundreds hall. the pacing is gentle and descriptive, you are given a vivid picture of the dilapidated house, both its ruin in the literal social structure of england and the psychological decay of its inhabitants. this is a genuinely discomfiting book, the scares are slow to build, but genuinely frightening, shocking, and well-earned. farraday is a man of rationality, and so he never quite believes there is something supernatural at work at hundreds hall, which is a clever device as the narrative voice, leaving an ambiguity throughout that is never entirely spelled-out. the final sentence of the book leaves a deeply harrowing impression, one that satisfies and teases, the best kind of conclusion.
#5 seven houses in france by bernardo atxaga
a story of corruption, decay, and self-interest set in the belgian congo in 1903. the title describes the plight of the commanding officer of a belgian military camp deep in the congo whose wife at home is expecting him to be able to purchase a seventh house in france to solidify their social standing in the world’s wealthy elite. in order to do this he must continue a questionable ivory and mahogany trade at the expense of the indigenous peoples while squandering the discipline and safety of the men he commands. he is but one of the many immoral gentlemen described in the book seeking some inglorious goal in the congo. and we witness this world crafted on exploitation and subjugation begin to fall apart, understanding that it was always fragile and rotten. at the beginning of the novel a newcomer with astounding sharpshooting skills and an enigmatic bearing enters the ranks of the camp and it is his seeming moral soundness and difference that disrupts the well-oiled, albeit morally dubious machinations of this colonial power. what ensues is a disturbing, sometimes hilarious novel, that reads quickly, pushing its characters ever forward to an inevitable charged confrontation of greed, haplessness, and moral decay. this book is a mash-up of ‘heart of darkness’ and ‘catch 22’ balancing so perfectly between horror and humor. the threats to the characters seem ever present and very real, and you’re taken on a strangely entertaining journey.
#6 swamplandia! by karen russell
swamplandia! is a former successful florida island attraction, famed for its alligator wrestling shows, owned by the bigtree family. the park has fallen on hard times since the death of the bigtree matriarch, and the father, his two daughters, and his son, are left to fend for themselves in a world that seemingly has no understanding of their worth and no patience for their nuances. this is a tricky novel. it is at once beautiful, heartbreaking, so very well phrased, and simultaneously aimless, overwritten, and nonsensical. what starts out as a compelling view into the world of a broken family, its particular quirks and hang-ups, soon becomes a fantastical, but utterly unfocused, rambling journey that relies too cavalierly on serendipity to be taken too seriously. considering how much russell writes in description, the plot and the characters are fundamentally underdeveloped. people behave with profound whimsy without any seeming justification other than ‘they have a dead parent and they grew up working on an alligator farm, so of course they’d behave like this!’. kiwi, the son of the bigtree family, makes for the most compelling character, as his journey at least has a motive, in his desperate attempt to save his family’s park. but the girls seem to maneuver around their world solely by hallucination and impulse beyond the naivete of even the most sheltered teens. add in a bizarre, pretty random third act character known as ‘the bird man’ who performs an ugly and wretched act (though entirely telegraphed from the moment he arrives in the book) that has very little consequence to the outcome of the story. characters wander around somewhat aimlessly for 300 pages, get into trouble for pretty far-fetched reasons, and most damningly, don’t really change. you’re left with a promise of what is to come at the conclusion of the novel, and i actually think the potential journey it sets up would have been a far more interesting read than this experiment with magical realism that really isn’t much more than a richly described series of accidents and coincidences. those descriptions are often worth the price of admission, russell knows how to craft a sentence, but the overall effect is unsatisfying.
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