The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

16001863This wonderful novel, which pays homage to the genre of the absurd, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared is a terrific romp through time and place, featuring the most unflappable protagonist I’ve yet encountered.

The story starts on the 100th birthday of the irrepressible Allan Karlsson. Trapped in a nursing home, destined to live out his remaining years, gazing out a window, tolerating the orders of the head nurse, denying his spirit of adventure and desire for a tipple, Allan turns his back on celebrations designed in his honour and, as the title suggests, climbs out the window of his room and, as far as the authorities can make out, vanishes.

Only, Allan hasn’t disappeared. Instead, unwittingly, he embarks on an amazing journey where he encounters people both good and dangerous, an elephant, a suitcase full of cash, bamboozled police and an attorney with poor judgement. Accused of being a murderer, kidnapper, thief and other terrible crimes, Allan is a wanted man. Remaining blissfully unaware as he travels across country, collecting people as one might stamps and finding hospitality where others might expect hostility, Allan relishes his adventures. Along the way, the readers learn about this incredible man’s past, a past that makes his improbable present so exceedingly ordinary. This is because Allan has not only met many of the movers and shakers of Twentieth Century history, but played a pivotal role in most of the major events – grand and catastrophic.

Laugh out loud at times and deeply poignant in others, this is a great read that demands you suspend your disbelief, buckle your seatbelt and go along for what is a wild and gratifying ride.

Engagingly written, it’s hard to put down and leaves you with a warm and very contented feeling that makes ageing seem like a hell of a lot more fun that it’s often cracked up to be; certainly more exciting than remaining in a nursing home counting the days.

 

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A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman

I wasn’t certain what to expect when I first started reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, despite the fact it came highly recommended to me by a darling friend whose reading choices I always love. The main protagonist, the 59 year-old forcibly retired Ove, seems to possess no redeeming qualities. Rude, prone to shouting and a level of intolerance of others’ failings that’s extraordinary in one who has not only held down a job for thirty-odd years but can also boast a successful marriage, I almost didn’t continue after the opening few pages… he’s just so damn unpleasant. But, there was also something a little familiar about Ove; a sort of defensive masculinity that you sometimes see in men of a certain generation (my father, my grandfather), as not only work, but life can render them redundant; make them feel as if they have no purpose anymore. It makes you want to hug and hold them and remind them of their value, especially when they most push you away. It’s testimony to Backman’s writing that after my initial reservations quickly dissipated, you feel exactly the same way about Ove – even when he shouts and slams doors… maybe even more so.9781476738017

Page by page, scene by scene, Ove, the very personification of a grumpy old bastard, is gradually revealed to us. The facilitator of this slow stripping of the layers that make up this complex, sad and angry man is a new neighbour, the pregnant “foreigner”,the pragmatic and delightful, Parvaneh and her normal (by-anyone-else’s-standards-other-than-Ove’s) family: her klutzy, gentle husband and two delightful daughters.

Resisting them at first by refusing to use their names and preferring the labels he so readily bestows on everyone to avoid intimacy, and by being a downright curmudgeon, Ove is slowly drawn into their lives and into facing the painful and joyous memories his own has thus far created. The novel then segues between the past and present, unfolding the life of the man called Ove, the morally upright and uptight hardworking grouch who nonetheless captures the heart of the laughing, beautiful and quite wonderful Sonja; the man who defiantly drives a Saab and defends one-eyed emaciated cats, young gay men, and any who find themselves unwitting victims of bureaucracy. We’re introduced to his neighbours, those who enter and exit his life; the hows, whys and wherefores, and suddenly, Ove and his surliness not only make sense but also become both irresistible and essential.

I don’t want to say too much more except that I laughed, cried, sighed, sobbed and had my heart filled and my soul nourished by this unapologetically sentimental but also biting tale of an ordinary man who proves over and over again that what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. Even the similes, which litter the pages with problematic regularity, ceased to bother me as they beautifully and accurately paint not only the colourful picture that is Ove, but his world-view as well.

Part fable, part sardonic treatise on the modern condition and those who recklessly abuse and use it and others, I can’t stop thinking about this gem of a book with hope, community and a man called Ove at its heart.

 

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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

This quite extraordinary book with an even more extraordinary title was recommended to me by a good friend who neither revealed anything about the contents nor genre – she simply said, “read it, I think you’ll enjoy it.”

She was right.

A strange book in that it’s at once both incredibly comical and tragic, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian basically tells the story of two estranged sisters, Vera and Nadezhda (Nadia), who are appalled to discover that their widowed and elderly father is about to remarry a luscious Ukrainian woman, Valentina, many decades his junior. Valentina also has a teenage son whom she believes is a “genius”. And so a tale of reckless marriage, love thwarted, dishonour, honour, the past, memory, family and the human capacity to survive unfolds.

The opening of the book is quite stunning and sets a deceptive tone:

“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. He was eight-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky waters, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

Enter Valentina: stage right, a ruthless, cunning and beautiful woman who seduces the old man into marriage believing that, as someone who has forged a life in a Western country, he must have money, and who intends, through wedlock to make a better life for herself and her gifted son.

Forcing the two angry sisters to co-operate in order to first prevent their father’s marriage and later, instigate his divorce, the book is told mainly from Nadia’s point of view. Filled with eccentric characters (none more so than the elderly father and Valentina), passion, purpose, and desperation, it is at once very funny and moving.

Like Nadia, we’re drawn into her father’s alternating states of misery and jubilation as his young, mercenary wife, both abuses and thrills him with her flirtatious and calculating ways. Just when you think she’s the “slut” and “gold-digger” the eldest sister, Vera, is persuaded she is, the book also exposes the pathos and hardship that faces those who are displaced – through war, politics and Otherness. Moving back in time to war-time Europe, we’re given insights into what faced inhabitants of occupied countries; the horror of camps, of having loved ones torn from your side and the constant fear that becomes a part of life – fear of loss, of dreams unfulfilled and so much more.

Having experienced this herself (indirectly – Nadia was a peace-time baby who nonetheless witnessed what the war did to her family and became an immigrant too) and through her family who suffered greatly and quietly during the war, Nadia is able to view Valentina and her actions differently to most. Seguing from anger to empathy, the sociologist in her struggles to understand, not only Valentina, but her father and sister and later, the other besotted and desperate characters who Valentina, as her marriage deteriorates, drags into their lives.

Running parallel to all the emotional and psychological chaos of the present is not only the upheavals and horror of the past, but the ordered and academic work that the father works on – the history of tractors. Functioning as analogous to the main narrative, it takes the reader through the glory of agriculture, the boons that technology offered, the abilities of humans to create and harness the power such technology and the ability to control nature offered, but also the huge dangers that lie in succumbing to progress without balance. It also offers a cautionary tale about the seductions of the West – something the Ukrainian refugees know all too well.

The book is also about families, old age, tenderness, love, the ties that bind even when we don’t want them too. It’s about loss, forgiveness and the capacity to both remember and forget. It’s about passion, compassion and human’s dreadful facility for cruelty – even the unintended kind.

Delightful, moving, funny and utterly unforgettable, A Short History is a book that will resonate with me for a long time to come.

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