My Grandmother Asked My to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

After reading and loving A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, I really didn’t want to leave his voice or the world he creates with his haunting words. So, I picked up My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (or that she Sends Her Regards and Apologies, depending which edition you get), unable to resist the quirky title, and was delighted I did.

24469230In this novel, Backman introduces the reader to the almost preternaturally bright, precocious and quite lovable seven year-old Elsa. Bullied at school, aware of her differences and trying to pretend her clever and busy mother’s pregnancy to her new and perfect boyfriend aren’t bothering her, Elsa is a child that arouses passionate responses in those who meet her – and, if she doesn’t right away, she ensures they soon will. The reason for her quirkiness, intelligence and strong awareness of what constitutes social justice becomes apparent almost immediately. Not only is Elsa equipped with a great mind and wonderful imagination, both are fiercely and lovingly cultivated by her outrageous and smart grandmother.

Every night, Elsa’s beloved and feisty grandmother, takes her to the Land of Almost-Awake, a land that she and Elsa have nurtured and developed, populating it with a history, other places and peoples for as many years as Elsa can remember.

When Elsa’s grandmother dies (this is not a spoiler, it is in the blurb), she entrusts to Elsa an important quest. In order to fulfil this quest, Elsa must not only face the monsters that have terrified her for years, but even vanquish them. Like the heroes in the Land of Almost-Awake, she must make friends of strangers, allies of enemies and reach out to those who need her more than the other way around. Most importantly, she must find the courage she sometimes lacks and be braver than she’s ever been before – lives depend upon it. In doing so, she learns about herself, her mother and her grandmother; history and the present melding in unexpected, dangerous and delightful ways.

Drawing on reality as much as imagination, Elsa’s quest and the people she encounters and dreams, also explore the eternal questions of life and death, conformity versus uniqueness and why we wear masks – to both hide and protect our true selves. The novel also explores the complexity of families and why and how sometimes the family we choose is made of stronger bonds than those we are born into.

This a beautiful novel that draws on invented and well-known tales (Harry Potter features strongly) and has a cast of original and compelling characters. Inhaled this book – I think anyone who loved Backman’s others will as well.

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This book was given a huge recommendation by a friend who shares similar reading tastes but not even her high praise prepared me for the story that unfolded when I began reading The Nightingale.

24447955Set on the eve of Word War Two in rural France, Paris and other locales, this is fundamentally a tale about two sisters: the gentle, loving and loyal Vianne, who simply wants to get on with the business of living and loving her husband and daughter, and her rebellious, impulsive sister, Isabelle. Fundamentally abandoned – if not rejected – by their father after their mother died and while still young, the two sisters found different ways to ope with their grief and loss. Sadly, they’re unable to find solace in each other; Vianne is frustrated by her sister’s perceived lack of responsibility and selfishness, Isabelle by Vianne’s lack of interest in and feelings for her – it’s as if she’s been rejected by her sister as well.

But it’s also a story about war and what it does to those who are drawn into its tragedy; how it strips some of their humanity, while for others it reminds them of what’s important and why no risk is ever too great to sustain this.

When the rumours of Nazis invading become a reality and the sisters’ very different lives are overturned, Vianne is forced to billet a Nazi officer. Terrified for her daughter, wondering about her husband who has been conscripted to the front, as her beloved village is transformed almost overnight (including some of the villagers) Vianne faces terrible deprivations and loss of heart and soul as she is forced into a series of difficult and dangerous choices simply to survive.

In the meantime, a chance encounter with an earnest young man sees Isabelle risking her life in order to stand up to the Nazi injustices and the destruction these monsters leave in their wake.

What neither Vianne or Isabelle can predict, however, is just how many sacrifices they’ll be asked to make, how many losses they’ll have to endure and how much faith and courage they’ll have to find – not only in each other, but within themselves.

Moving from the late 1980s and the reminiscing of a dying old woman and back to the young woman and the war tearing the world apart, this heart-wrenching, beautiful and brave story of women and men who resist the lure of evil, who stand up for what is right is remarkable. Taking its time, the novel draws you into the lives of the sisters, their family and neighbours. With gorgeous prose, meaningful reflections and such truth in the complex familial relationships portrayed, even when what’s being revealed is painful or unflattering, you come to understand the characters and their motives. Because the novel is set against a backdrop we know so well, the reader is privy to what the characters don’t know – the heartless onslaught of Hitler, the Gestapo and Nazis, the horror of the Concentration camps, and the chaos and utter heartache that await them all. How hope is so hard to cling to, but cling they must. This knowledge creates a particular frisson as you read, making the narrative even more powerful than it already is.

Hauntingly tragic yet also so very beautiful, this is a story that lingered in my heart and mind for days afterwards. A simply wonderful book that I cannot recommend highly enough whether you’re a lover of history, fine fiction, a tremendous tale or whether you long to hear the voices of those so often rendered silent.

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Book review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I didn’t sThe Goldfincho much read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt as I was swept up in its powerful and sublime narrative with its exploration of love, loss, beauty, material objects and the relationship we can form with these and other people in our lives and how the choices we make, which are embedded in a moral code, define us.

The novel tells the tale of Theodore Decker who, suspended from school because of a questionable friendship he has formed as opposed to his own behaviour, has his life upended and shattered when he survives a tragedy that rocks New York. In the moments before and in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, he forms a bond with a young girl called Pippa and old man named Welty, both of whom become touchstones in what his life will become. Amid all the horror and shock that unfolds, Theo does something quite strange, he takes something extremely valuable and beautiful and tells no one what he has done

The consequences of this one action will echo and influence his life choices, merge into the memories of his past and erupt into the present in a prescient manner offering escape, promise and danger.

The novel then follows Theo’s life and the impact loss and accidental gain have upon him. His grief, his torment, the monotony and loneliness of his days are charted as he becomes not so much a victim of circumstance, but a victim of those determined to follow bureaucratic processes, tick their boxes and do the ‘right thing’ by this silent and oft sullen young man. This section of the book is heart-wrenching as well-intentioned people fail to see or understand how much Theo needs connection, longs for real communication and feeling, for someone to do more than simply satisfy the social niceties and offer platitudes. The only thing that allows him a link to his life before the tragedy, to experience and build any kind of emotional bridge is the object he has stolen. It speaks to him in ways that the humans in his life, even those closest to him, cannot.

It isn’t until he meets James Hobart, Hobie, an antique restorer and friend of Welty’s, and is reunited with Pippa that a semblance of meaning, if not hope, enters his life. But even this is transitory as Theo is at the whim of forces he cannot control and so his life is taken on journeys, undergoes trajectories he can neither navigate or foresee and, on the way, he collides and connects with others: his recalcitrant father, the ebullient and wonderfully strange Boris, the aloof but kind Barbours. Anchoring him on the ride his life becomes is his great secret, the object that has come to fill the hole left by the absence of those he loves.

From New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, from high society to the seedy underworld of crime and shady deals, drugs and booze, the novel follows Theo from his teens to his late twenties. Exquisitely written, it is a story I could not put down. Tartt’s ability to enter the mind and hearts of adolescents and adults is acute and heartfelt. Often philosophical and littered with references from popular and ‘high’ culture, the reader is swept along in the currents and eddies of Theo’s life in much the way he is. Filled with rich and complex characters, humour in surprising places, touching scenes that wring the heart and others that leave you frustrated and discontent, there is never a dull moment and, frankly, I was astonished by a few readers’ reviews that declared nothing happened in this novel. It may centre on a character who fundamentally embraces nihilism – or attempts to – but everything happens in this book. Everything that makes us human, that drives our needs, desires and hopes is explored. It seeks to understand what is free will, what is determinism. It ponders the great questions that have entertained and confounded philosophers since Aristotle, questions about life and death and meaning. It also asks, do we make our own luck or misfortune or is it somehow predestined? It is a morally and ethically complex novel that among many notions teases out the idea: do good acts necessarily lead to good outcomes and vice-a-versa? What if the wrong or bad decision can lead to the right ending? Or a good one bring about catastrophe? Does that make the entire choice or the person making it evil or their choice necessarily wrong? These are questions characters unconsciously embrace and finally ask outright. It’s left to us, the reader, to decide whether or not the answers are worthy or right (or not).

A fantastic story that lingers in the heart and head and which, like the object at its centre and the young man who obsesses over it, captivates you and whispers, “I have been written for you alone.” (Something that will make sense once you have read this utterly beautiful and haunting tale). Cannot recommend highly enough.

 

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