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Three Book Reviews

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I've chosen to review these three books because after reading them I was struck by what divides them and what unites them. They are all stories of individuals in their communities, which couldn't be more different, yet each community providing the essential background conditions for the development of their protagonists and their stories.


4321 by Paul Auster 

Paul Auster is known for turning out slim volumes with as much content as might take another writer twice as many pages to achieve. But he has broken his mould with this work of around 900 pages. Different comparisons come to mind when thinking about the book. Dickens; Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken; the film Sliding Doors, the latter two for the idea of the different paths one might take – or be taken along – in life, and the former for the large cast of characters and the many twists and turns of our hero's journey.

Archibald Ferguson is born in New Jersey on 3rd March 1947 to Jewish parents, Rose and Stanley Ferguson, and if you think there's a joke in there somewhere, you're quite right. His grandfather was slapped with the name Ferguson on arrival in the US as an immigrant – yes, that joke. Known as Archie to his family, and as Ferguson to us through the course of the novel, the only constants about him are the facts above. From the moment of his birth, we are told the story of his life through four different prisms, as each chapter relates the history of Archie versions 1,2,3 and 4. Each version contains many of the same characters but their stories differ. Archie is always going to become a writer, be it as journalist, poet or story teller. His mother is a photographer in every version but her fortunes vary. His father is a businessman with vastly differing levels of success. One of the constant females in his life is Amy, variously girlfriend, step-sister, step-cousin. Most characters survive, some don't. Archie's life is lived against the background of some of the seminal events of 20th century American history: the cold war, JFK, Martin Luther King, the Vietnam draft, the My Lai massacre, the Columbia University sit-in. Ferguson is no Forrest Gump or Zelig, inserting himself into each event, but his involvement in those that impinge on his life is part of each story.

This book is for everyone who has ever wondered how their life might have been if at some point they had made a different decision or taken an alternative path. Sometimes Ferguson chooses his path and is responsible for the results, sometimes he has to deal with whatever fate throws at him.

Paul Auster's prose is expansive, and you need to draw a long breath before setting out on some sections, but it is also never less than limpid and graceful. The meaning of the title will become clear as you read and the tension mounts as Ferguson's lives diverge and develop. The true meaning of 4321 is revealed only at the end, a masterstroke to conclude a masterpiece.


A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier 

The time is the early 1930s, the place England, a country still recovering from the First World War and at that time still unaware that another great, terrible war would be upon it before the end of the decade.

Violet Speedwell is a woman unhappily typical of her time, a spinster in her late 30s, mourning the loss in the war of both her fiancé and her brother, one of that group known as "surplus women". She lives with her complaining, critical and difficult mother and has the nous to realise that this is not enough, that she wants more, and that in order to build an independent life for herself she must take the revolutionary step, for a woman of her time and class, of leaving home. She moves to the beautiful cathedral town of Winchester, where she takes a room in a boarding house, finds a job as a typist and settles down to the humdrum existence of boredom and a certain level of privation that she seems destined to endure.

One day she enters the cathedral and finds a different future. She meets a band of women known as the broderers, volunteers who embroider the kneelers that soften the discomfort of worshippers. They follow prescribed patterns, but proclaim their individuality by working their own initials into the pattern. Now at last her life changes, as she meets the women of the group, the leader and instructor of the broderers, the real-life Louisa Pesel, and befriends a couple who are negotiating the difficulties of building a same-sex relationship at a time when the closet was the only place which people such as these two brave and likeable women could inhabit. And where there's a cathedral there are bells; Arthur, one of the bell-ringers, becomes the love interest of the story. Arthur's wife is unable to come to terms with the death of their son in the war. There is no question of Arthur's leaving her. The developing relationship between Violet and Arthur is described in subtle but unambiguous language, reflecting the passion below the genteel surface.

This is a tale of restraint, of cyclists on muddy English lanes, of morning mists, of emotion felt but held in check. The reader learns much about the arts of embroidery and campanology. The ending is unexpected but entirely satisfactory and in keeping with the tenor of this rewarding and beautiful book.


Redhead By The Side Of The Road by Anne Tyler 

There is something about the act of picking up Anne Tyler's latest novel that is like slipping into a warm bath. You know what you're going to get, you know it's going to be deeply satisfying, if not very challenging in intellectual terms. You'll revisit Baltimore, the writer's home town and setting for most of her work and it'll feel so familiar you could swear you've been there, although you know you never have. Her characters will be people you know, the ones who serve you in restaurants or fix your wayward computer, like Micah, the hero of her latest offering. Micah lives a small life, living rent-free in the basement apartment of a building where he serves as superintendent, and from where he leaves to offer help to people overcome by the modern technology we all have to negotiate nowadays and which sometimes threatens to overwhelm. He has four sisters, life-long waitresses with warm, rowdy families, and a girlfriend, Cass, when his life is disrupted by the arrival of a teenage boy, Brink, clearly from a milieu different from his own, who claims to know that Micah must be his father. He's mistaken, and Micah is able to convince him of this, but once Brink has entered his world, he's clearly going to be there for a while. Meanwhile Cass suspects she's about to be evicted from her own apartment and finds Micah's response to this potential catastrophe so lacking that she breaks up with him. There's the whole drama laid out in a few words, but Anne Tyler's way of telling a story is what has led to her Pulitzer Prize and to her being considered, by some, the best writer of modern fiction alive today. Her skill in distilling the mundane and shining a revealing light onto the smallest detail is breathtaking. 

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Tuesday, 24 November 2020

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