REVIEW: The Fish Can Sing – Halldór Laxness

The Fish Can SingThe Fish Can Sing by Halldór Kiljan Laxness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a beautiful and complex book. It takes in themes of nationhood, the role of parents and grand parents, heroes and the complexities attached to being a creative person.

The book works in a funny, meandering way where we learn a lot about the people of Iceland in the form of stories told by our protagonist, all the while we get to know our protagonist slowly across the span of the novel.

Álfgrímur the protagonist feels like a stand in for the novelist himself (and for this reader) someone who has a creative spark which he doesn’t quite know how to harness or whether he should or can harness it at all. He builds up a complex relationship with Garðor Holm, a world famous singer from humble beginnings in Reykjavik. Garðor becomes a mentor of sorts as well as a bad example. His worldwide fame is not as pure as he lets on. When he visits Iceland he continually misses concerts and events in his honour. You are left wondering whether he can sing at all, whether instead the whole thing is a ruse. In the book he only sings a handful of times. A heartbreaking exchange nearer the end of the book nearly had me in tears on the train, all about how much Garðor had to struggle to become the artist he was.

I loved the world of this book, it had the completeness of an fantasy world. The narrative voice had shades of magical realist novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, but everything in the book was plausible and grounded within a reality, nothing quite stepped into that other world of magic.

Like all great novels it leaves you with unanswered questions. We wonder off and on for the whole book who the protagonist’s birth parents are, but in the end this doesn’t matter. The relationship Álfgrímur has with his adopted grandparents is a beautiful and the location of Brekkukot in the novel is very important and evocative, a sort of tavern where travellers come and go, some stay forever, some go there to die.

There was a lot about what it was like to be Icelandic before they gained full independence from Denmark in 1944. This sense of the ruling class being Danish and their use of language to distinguish themselves as the civilised people compared to the Icelanders was fascinating, and a story sadly recognisable in many other nations in the world.

A beautiful introduction to Icelandic culture, the humour of the people and the struggles of living in that world, as well as the trials of being someone who could escape.

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REVIEW: Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman

Call Me By Your NameCall Me By Your Name by André Aciman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A universal and beautifully real novel which runs along so easily and wonderfully. Narrated by Elio, the younger of the two, you feel his fears, the thrill of his growing obsession with Oliver and, at moments, his fantasies made real. The novel has a few differences to the film (which is similarly glorious) in location and in time frame. The book has a larger scope in terms of the history of the relationship and, having seen the film, it’s lovely to read the book and to continue the story beyond what happens in the film.

A deeply affecting book which I read very quickly and intensely. I felt like it brought me closure on my own past, I was a similarly intense romantic boy once and it was incredibly emotional to see such a real portrayal of love like this.

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REVIEW: Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love Austen. Her wit and wry humour is something I have enjoyed immensely for a number of years. Knowing her other novels well, this one does have a slightly different atmosphere and tone at moments. For the first half of the book, it feels very much like a standard Austen, a witty comedy of social rules. Bath, Balls, and making calls.

This time our a heroine is idealistic and young and loves novels, something which was considered “women’s reading” at the time. Men were supposed to only read non-fiction! Austen names various novelists of the time who are now considered pioneers of the Gothic movement. Gothic novels are all blood, family secrets, old decaying mansions, murder and thunderstorms. When Catherine finally makes it to Northanger Abbey over halfway through the book, Austen uses the tropes of the Gothic as a prism in which to examine the heroine’s idealism and naivety. Catherine’s expectations of the Abbey are prejudiced by her love of the Gothic, as well as Henry’s flights of fancy describing the Abbey on the journey there. During her stay there, Catherine is consistently disappointed by the Abbey. It is too clean and modern. She becomes obsessed with living her own Gothic fantasies, which we as readers find increasingly irrational and absurd.

I imagine this book is used extensively on Gothic fiction modules at Universities, because in satirising the tropes of the Gothic, Austen perfectly describes them. Storms! Old Manuscripts! Ruins! Family Secrets!

There was one moment that really stood out when our heroine accuses a character of either murder, domestic violence and/or imprisonment of someone in a locked up wing of the Abbey. This excess of Gothic imagination on the heroine’s part was a step too far for me in terms of keeping the character likeable. But I do suppose this served well to remind us of the character’s youth (17!) and idealism.

This strong sense of a viewpoint and satire of the Gothic movement in this novel is unusual for Austen. Her work usually focuses more on the impossibility of human interaction, manners, social rules, and character studies. I enjoyed every aspect of this novel, but felt the especially Gothic sections were like reading a different book, which if it were meant earnestly instead of ironically, would not be as successful. Thankfully Austen always serves us with double helpings of sarcasm, irony and wit, so we know we’re not to take certain moments seriously.

There are some really wonderful moments in this novel where you feel Austen right there with you, she will announce herself as the narrator and remind you that you are the reader. She doesn’t do it often, but when she does it feels incredibly modern. You feel close to her as a person.

Loved it with all my Gothic heart!

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