The Opposite of Romance – David Szalay’s ‘Spring’: A Book Review

Understated, subtle, yet precise. That is how I’d describe David Szalay’s novel, Spring. This book will resonate with anyone who’s ever been uncertain about where they stand in a relationship.

‘This presumably being the fact that he was in love with her. Or thought he was. Or said he was. Or said he thought he was…’

Spring by David Szalay

Spring by David Szalay

Meet James – a many times failed entrepreneur, and meet Katherine – an interim receptionist working at a luxury hotel, recently separated from her husband. It’s 2006 and they meet at a wedding, swap numbers and start seeing each other. Straight forward enough. Except the relationship that ensues never quite makes it off the ground, yet we follow them through the painful repetitiveness of a new relationship, a repetition that many reviewers have said is captured in a beautifully mundane precision.

Szalay is very observant of the little nuances, the tiny details that make you smile because they are unique yet universal. He writes with a precision that elevates the ordinary into something more profound, whatever that ‘something’ may be. James spends most of his time wondering if things are ok with him and Katherine, ‘On that question he is insatiable’. He’s highly attuned to every one of Katherine’s slight shifts in mood and she appears to treat him with an indifference that is down-right embarrassing at times, blowing hot and cold in what I found to be a completely unattractive self-absorbed manner. Yet Szalay’s characters are not two dimensional; there are all these layers of thought and reasoning and experience that makes it difficult to judge them outright (as much as you want to, damn it!)

We spend as much time observing their dates as we do witnessing their attempts to actually try and arrange them and this is where Szalay’s gift for dialogue really comes through, because we have all had these awkward phone conversations in our time.

Pointless conversations

Pointless conversations

You can’t help but wonder what the point of the whole thing is. Why bother?

The ending is hideously ambiguous, but the novel resonates more as a result. I never fully understood whether or not they actually did love one another. My instinct would be to say of course not, but then maybe this is what love is about in a city like London. You trudge on through and grasp at little pockets of companionship that bring you out of the vapidity, the crowded solitude. I don’t know…Maybe this also touches on that feeling a lot of people have in their late twenties/early thirties where you’re a little bit jaded and happy to settle into something rather than aimlessly try and reach for that elusive something else: ‘No more magnificence. Now he just wants to be okay.’

Gosh, this is depressing. But then, this is not chick lit, it’s real. No tint of rose. And if you’re able to look beyond the cyclical nature of their relationship (James calling, Katherine not picking up) the writing is effortless.

But this book is not without its flaws. There are characters brought into the storyline for what feels like fairly weak reasons. The frequency with which these characters enter the plot is inconsistent and the subplot of betting and race horses (James’s most recent entrepreneurial endeavour) seems completely unnecessary, adding very little to the book.

If you like stories that are character rather than plot based, you’ll really enjoy this. Whereas if you like your books to have a distinct narrative arc, I probably wouldn’t bother.

If you’ve read this, what did you think of Katherine? Was I the only one who really didn’t like her? And though I liked James did anyone else hope he would eventually develop a backbone? Do you think there was any kind of genuine love in this relationship as opposed to simply wanting to feel? Or is Katherine simply just not that into James?

Spring by David Szalay

Spring by David Szalay

The Sense Behind the Booker Prize Winner

How reliable is human memory? This is the central preoccupation of this unassuming yet fascinating book by Julian Barnes.

Beautiful black edging

Beautiful black edging

The paperback edition of the book is simply beautiful. The pages are edged in black that bleeds off from the cover like running ink; a book that has what I like to call great ‘shelf power’ and will look even better with age; a keeper. Definitely not one for the kindle.

You always expect the winner of the Booker to be rather hefty but this is a slim volume (a novella?). With this book, every word counts, it’s concise. For lack of a better word, it is an elegant book made up of beautifully constructed prose. I read it in one sitting on a gloomy Saturday.

Tony is a retired man who’s satisfied with ordinariness; a life of holidays and mowing lawns. In the first half of the book, Tony recounts his final days at school and the memories of a particular friend, Adrian, and then of his relationship with Veronica during his time at university. The second half brings us to the present and the receipt of a bequest from Veronica’s mother, recently passed away and who met Tony only briefly on an uncomfortable weekend many decades before.

The illusion of memory

The illusion of memory

This brings Veronica back into Tony’s life and we begin to question his reliability, what he has just told of his past, undermined. He is now forced to re-evaluate the events of his past, and sets out to discover what really happened all those years ago, and to what extent he was responsible for what transpired. Our desire to know what exactly happened propels the narrative to a surprising and contemplative conclusion.

The Sense of an Ending explores the notion of memory and how it cannot be trusted, that it is indeed constructed. We believe what we want to believe and the longer we live, there are fewer people (witnesses) who are able to contradict us, so this belief then becomes the truth. This notion that we can edit our histories, and by extension our lives, is truly fascinating.

'We tell ourselves stories in order to live.'

‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’

This book has honestly had me questioning my life; my version of events so to speak. I’m pretty sure that my past isn’t how I’ve remembered it, it is how I’ve wanted to remember it.

I remember the amazing writer Joan Didion once saying, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ And so we do. Do we?

Love…in 185 definitions.

fraught, adj.

Does every “I love you” deserve an “I love you too”? Does every kiss deserve a kiss back? Does every night deserve to be spent on a lover?

If the answer to any of these is “No,” what do we do?

Ever read a book that was miraculously able to pinpoint feelings you’ve had but have never expressed out loud, or described moments you’ve experienced that you thought were unique to you? Well if you haven’t, I suggest you give The Lover’s Dictionary’ by David Levithan a go.

This book is…well, it’s different. For a start it’s a dictionary that passes for a novel. We travel from A right through to Z, going through entries that give us insight into the ups and downs of the nameless (male) narrator’s relationship with his unnamed girlfriend.

What makes the reading process so rewarding is that the story is obviously not told in full and is not written chronologically. A lot is left unsaid allowing your imagination to fill in the gaps. Through these anecdotes/entries you learn so much more about these two people than if it were a full blown novel.

breach, n.

I didn’t want to know who he was, or what you did, or that it didn’t mean anything.

This is a love story that doesn’t hold back. All those little nuances of a relationship (both successful and failing) are detailed, making the story unique yet universal. I don’t want to reveal anymore because a lot of the delight in reading this comes from how the story unfolds; alphabetically. 

Photo: thyaudaciousness.blogspot.com

Interestingly, this book works very well as an ebook. I read it on my kindle and found I had a greater understanding and appreciation of what was being said because I could just touch my screen to find the full definition of more complex words. You could, of course, simply pull out a dictionary from your shelf, but all that hassle when you can just touch.

encroach, adj.

The first three nights we spent together, I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t used to your breathing, your feet on my legs, your weight in the bed. In truth, I still sleep better when I’m alone. But now I allow that sleep isn’t always the most important thing.

This book is funny and it’s sad, but most of all, it’s real. Read it.

D’ya have any favourite words/entries from this dictionary?

Photo: the-lovers-dictionary.tumblr.com

The Sadness that comes with Cake – Aimee Bender

I’ve just spent the better part of the last two days reading Aimee Bender’s ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’. The quirky title is what lured me in, and I can honestly say that it’s been a while since I’ve been so wrapped up in a story that a book becomes unputdownable (hence why I haven’t posted here in some time). This book has left me intrigued, confused and undeniably sad.

At the age of 9, Rose Edelstein discovers that she can taste her mother’s emotions in a slice of home-made lemon-chocolate cake. Where before she was cheerful and capable, Rose learns that her mother tastes of sadness, despair and desperation. So begins a life where for Rose, an average meal can become an intimate moment of revelation.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

This gift of being able to read the feelings of the people who prepared the food she consumes is quite unsettling and results in Rose growing up very quickly, becoming an almost adult-child. The book follows her journey as she struggles with this gift, exploring the dynamics of her family: the father who is always there but never present, the sad mother who is always smiling, and the older brother who does not like to be touched.

I admit that I have a predilection for tales of dysfunctional families, but the Edelsteins are quietly dysfunctional: soundlessly desperate and unhappy yet not prepared for anything to change. Rose, wise beyond her years, is an excellent narrator who builds a stagnant world of surface where sadness and loss continue to permeate the air long after the last page has been read.

I recommend this book because I didn’t fully understand it, and for me, those are the kinds of books that stay with you. Let me know what you think!

The Bloody Blues – Esi Edugyan

Hands up if you’ve ever thought about the experience of black people living in Europe during World War II? If you did put your hand up, you’re probably lying. I’m just saying.

Now I’ve always been fascinated with the Second World War in general, and I love reading stories about the Jewish experience (Those Who Save Us anyone?), but not once in all those history classes in school or in any documentary have I heard anyone talking about blacks living in Nazi Germany at the time. Their experience is not well documented, and while it’s certain that we’re not talking about millions of people here, like the Jews, I understand that there was still quite a large number of black people affected (mixed-race kids were sterilised!).

So that’s why I was surprised when I picked up Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues. I’ll confess that part of the reason I picked it up is because the book is published by the publisher I’m currently interning with (haha). HOWEVER, my opinion on the book has not been affected in any way. Hands on heart.

Jealousy, loyalty and betrayal. All with a sprinkling of Nazi.

Jealousy, loyalty and betrayal. All with a sprinkling of Nazi.

The story revolves around a single incident that took place in 1940s Paris; Hieronymous Falk, a gifted jazz musician (trumpeter) is arrested in a cafe, and never heard from again. He was a German citizen. And also black. Sid, his Black American bandmate, is the narrator and the only one to witness Hiero’s arrest. We move back and forth in time and place (from Berlin to Paris in the 30s and 40s, to Europe and America in the 90s) to understand what led these men to this desperate situation, and what has happened to them since.

The voice in which the tale is narrated (jazz vernacular and slang of the time) gives a great sense of place and really helps to immerse you in that time, with Jazz music almost becoming a character in its own right. I’m not a fan of jazz and can sometimes find all this stuff a little annoying, but my ever-growing desire to know of Sid’s betrayal really helped this story along.

The men’s struggle to stay alive, the strength of their friendship and the ferocity of loyalty creates an atmosphere that is at times so intense that I almost couldn’t turn the page! So this idea of betrayal is all the more heart-breaking.

Edugyan was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011, and has now been shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction. All for a reason. Read it (to make the company I’m photocopying for really rich!).

This book is recommended to anyone who’s interested in learning more about the black experience in Nazi town.

Visiting Jennifer Egan’s ‘Goon Squad’.

You know a book is good when you’re asked to describe it and the first words that come out of your mouth are ‘I can’t even tell you what it’s about…’ This is precisely how I’ve been responding to questions about Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’.

do know how to construct a basic sentence (more or less), but in my defence, even the publishers (Corsair, Constable & Robinson) seemed to have a hard time explaining. This brings me to Exhibit A, the book’s blurb (which is vague at best):

“…vividly captures the moments where lives interact, and where fortunes ebb and flow. Egan depicts […] the sad consequences for those who couldn’t fake it during their wild youth – madness, suicide or prison – in this captivating, wryly humorous story of temptation and loss.”

Yeah. What did I say?

The book is split into 13 chapters, each dedicated to a single character. These characters are so random, and their lives equally so, yet the subtle way in which Egan links one to the other is so precise, so surprising, so utterly perfect.

You move from the life of a record producer with no sex drive, to a kleptomaniac half-heartedly seeking help, to that of a dictator’s publicist etc. You can’t make this stuff up. The book is funny; there’s no doubt about it, but it’s a dark humour that underlines the undeniable pathos of the characters’ lives. It’s so bizarre, yet so real.

I highly recommend this, if only to hear you say to someone else ‘I can’t even tell you what it’s about.’

If you’ve read this already, let me know what you thought! Only if you can articulate this of course! haha

The Goon Squad

The Goon Squad