My Name is Red - Orhan Pamuk
In my final year of university I took a module called ‘Medieval Islamic Empires’, which was simultaneously fascinating, and incredibly eye opening. I learned that Arabic scholars in the thirteenth century were responsible for the fact that westerners today read Aristotle (well, some anyway…), study astronomy, or even use the word ‘algebra’. I ended up writing an 8,000 word essay on these revelations, and however tedious that may sound, I honestly loved every minute of it. This is a fascinating period, though it is hard to generalise, because the ancient Islamic empires covered roughly seven centuries.
My Name is Red is set during the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire, the fall of which arguably marks the end of the powerful Islamic dynasties of this era. When I heard of Pamuk’s historical drama, my interest was naturally peaked. The genius of this novel lies in the multiple narratives Pamuk employs, from the main protagonists and their friends, family, and enemies, to the colour red. This seemingly bizarre concept of hues, art and painting having lives of their own is made simple and obvious by Pamuk, such is the eloquent power of his writing and the story he weaves. With the story centering around a murder that takes place within a circle of painters. My Name is Red harks back to a time when miniaturists dedicated their lives to the perfection of their painting, and also trod the dangerous line between producing increasingly beautiful images, and risking offending higher powers through their lifelike imagery.
The plot is too complex and convoluted for me to summarise here, but don’t be put off, this book demands all your attention to follow the plot at times, and is completely worth it.
Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
Obviously, not the most original book to review, but this one has been on my to-read list for a long time now, so much so that I turned down suggestions from several friends to see the recent film adaptation at the cinema, for fear of ruining my eventual reading experience.
Thankfully, I was very glad I waited. What I found so overwhelming about this book is how obvious the huge amount of influence it has had on other novelists is. There are some writers, like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, who write certain characters so well, they are completely relatable and undated centuries later. Reading about Levin’s brother who is a self-confessed liberal and revolutionary yet has very little care for those closest to him, I found myself thinking, ‘I’ve met people like that!’, in the same way I do when I read about the awkward bachelors Austen’s heroines are forced to socialise with.
At the centre of the novel, as everyone knows, is a love story. But it is not clichéd or trite as one might expect from such an old, established book. Anna and Vronsky’s relationship is fraught, flawed and utterly convincing. I also particularly liked the fact that Tolstoy resisted making Karenin a stock evil scorned husband figure. He too is deeply flawed, and you can completely empathise with Anna’s frustration at having to live with such a man, but the genuine despair he exhibits when his wife leaves him redeems him a great deal. Tolstoy convincingly recreates the lack of simplicity within such relationships, the lack of blame when something falls apart but also asserts the misery of Anna, someone who in all likelihood would not have married who she did if she truly had autonomy.
Luckily, I have managed to go my whole life prior to reading Anna Karenina without having the plot spoiled for me, so when (spoiler alert) she kills herself at the end, I was genuinely shocked. Vronsky’s mourning for his lost love is also particularly poignant.
As I said, I am not the first to review Anna Karenina, but I wanted to include it here because it was a joy to read and a reminder for me at least that among always looking out for new writers, it is worth going back to an old classic every so often to show you how it’s done.
The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
This is one of the most moving books I have ever read. I have to admit, the first couple of pages didn’t have me convinced in the way I would later become, but I suddenly found myself gripped by Ishiguro’s intriguing and complex characters.
There is something endlessly fascinating about the now near-extinct world of grand houses in the English country side and their upstairs/downstairs relationships and interactions. In a move away from more traditional narratives on this subject, this book captures a time when that whole world was uncomfortably uncertain of its future. The plight of the inter-war aristocrat struggling to maintain their lifestyle might be a hard one for most of us to empathise with, but what I did find incredibly poignant was Ishiguro’s portrayal of a man whose whole life has been dedicated to service, much like his family before him, who finds his own identity inextricably tied up with his dedication to those he serves. There are moments when you want to shake him, and urge him to exercise some liberties, which for me serves as a lesson in social conditioning, and the dangers of such a rigid class system. Of course, the limits the English class system imposes on people is still resolutely pertinent at the moment.
Ishiguro’s prose is flawless and sparkling, and the central relationship may very well bring a tear to your eye, despite the complete lack of sentimentality. I was recently given the fourth edition of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists at work and am thrilled to see he is included in it. A very well-deserved accolade.
The Gathering - Anne Enright
Anne Enright is an author I have been interested in trying for a while now, an interest that was exacerbated when she gave the speech at my graduation ceremony last year. Her speech was eloquent, funny, and inspiring, and I’ve been determined to read something of hers since.
Unfortunately, since the degree I was graduating with was English and History, I hadn’t had a chance to read a book of my choice for three years, and my ‘to read’ list was so long, I have only just got the chance to read The Gathering, but it has definitely been worth the wait.
Enright creates a sense of family instantly and seemingly effortlessly, the Hegartys became alive in my own mind much in the same way they have a demanding, at times jarring but always-necessary place in each others lives. The untimely death of a young man, which is at the centre of the novel, was dealt with in an almost fragmented way, which for me created a very real sense of grief within the book, particularly the shocking grief that comes with losing someone young. The Gathering is written without sentimentality, the protagonist describes the most tragic things in an almost casual and uninteresting way, heightening the poignancy of what has happened
The only bad thing I could say about this book is that I’m not sure if I was entirely convinced by the twist/revelation at the end. But that is just a small point and in some ways I do think it worked, I definitely recommend this one, and have now put her other novel, The Forgotten Waltz, which I have heard great things about, on my ‘to read’ list.