I have been reading two thick books recently. I began reading Ash, which is 1113 pages with small type. Then I had to put it aside while I read the Book Club book, The Luminaries, which is merely 832 pages! Persepolis: The story of a childhood was light in weight, but certainly not in subject matter.
Persepolis: The story of a childhood — Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi was a 10 year old school girl in 1980, the year the Fundamentalists tightened their grip on Iranian society. She came from a left-wing family who had been involved in opposition to both the regimes of the Shah and the Fundamentalists. She tells of her uncle Anoosh, who escaped imprisonment by the Shah’s secret police by fleeing to Moscow. He returned after the revolution but was soon arrested and executed for being a Russian spy.
Satrapi cleverly shows us not only the big events in Iranian/Persian history, and how people fought against persecution, but she also shows us how Fundamentalism impacted on daily life, especially her life as a teenager. Her parents had to smuggle Iron Maiden and Kim Wilde posters in from Turkey. She is accosted in the street by the Guardians of the Revolution for wearing Nike runners and jeans. She writes: “And the Committee they didn’t have to inform my parents. They could detain me for hours or for days. I could be whipped. In short, anything could happen to me. It was time for action.” That action was to make up a horror story about her home life and burst into tears. Music and parties were forbidden, with harsh penalties for those found with decks of cards, records or cassettes.
What makes this an even more interesting read is that it is a graphic novel. I was impressed that Satrapi is able to convey complex concepts in this limiting format. For example after the Shah had been toppled and before the Fundamentalists took power the young Marjane finds out that Ramin’s father was in the Secret Police and had “killed a million people”. Outraged Marjane leads some of her friends to find Ramin to beat him up. Fortunately her mother intervenes and explains that Ramin is not his father. Justice is not for them to dispense. When Marjane tells Ramin she forgives him, she is further outraged when he replies that his father is not a murderer because “he killed Communists and Communists are evil”. We understand how difficult this is for her. All this happens in 15 frames.
These experiences develop her natural strength and intelligence — she continues to be outspoken at school and does not retreat when confronted with inequalities. The Iran/Iraq War puts the distressed society under overwhelming pressure and we know that Marjane will not be able to keep quiet. The end of the book is only the end of part 1. Part 2 will be just as interesting.
The Luminaries ~ Eleanor Catton
The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction last year. The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Republic of Ireland, or Zimbabwe.
Robert Macfarlane, Chair of judges, 2013 Man Booker Prize, said this about it:
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, set in the New Zealand gold rush, slowly but deeply staked its claim upon the judges. It is animated by a weird struggle between compulsion and conversion: within its pages, men and women proceed according to their fixed fates, while gold – as flakes, nuggets, coins and bars – ceaselessly shifts its shapes around them. In this way capital and character are brought both to clash and to meld. At 832 pages, it might seem like one of Henry James’s ‘big, baggy monster’ novels, but in fact it is as intricately structured as an orrery. Each section is half the length of its predecessor, right down to the final, astonishing pages. It is a book, therefore, which does things brilliantly by halves. – See more at: http://www.themanbookerprize.com/event/robert-macfarlane-announces-man-booker-2013-winner#sthash.8cO1fTJW.dpuf
And one of their reasons for giving the prize to Catton?
…….we [the judges] are confident that this is the one that does the most to invigorate and renew its chosen form. This is the one that makes the novel seem novel again. (Quoted in The Telegraph, 16th Oct 2013.)
That is a big statement, but I am sorry to say that I don’t have an opinion on whether the book does that. I am not sure that I agree that the novel stopped being a novel, as this quote seems to imply. Do I understand why it won? In part. Catton controls her writing so beautifully. The plot is so complex, but never convoluted and she maintains an ‘old fashioned’ style of writing all the way through. While it was a great read, it was not a brilliant read, and I feel that prize winning books should be.
While a lot has been said about the astrological aspects of the book, really the heart of the plot was a murder mystery, with gold hidden in the seams of dresses, lost crates, lost miners, duffer gold claims, unsigned deeds and lots of opium smoked. There were stories and tales told, overheard conversations and secret meetings. The first chapter, which is half the book, is like a jigsaw puzzle where each character adds what he knows to the whole mystery. But it is never straight forward and the tale loops back on itself. It is intricately structured and I marvel at how Catton was able to keep it all straight as she wrote it. It must have been some whiteboard!
It is not a book that I have fallen in love with, but it is one that I would recommend. Don’t be put off by the length, just go along for a rollicking good ride!
Ash: A secret history ~ Mary Gentle
However, I would not recommend Ash unless you were a fan of Mary Gentle’s work or enjoyed modern medieval style of novels. I enjoyed it but it is LONG. While I was distracted with other books, I had to renew this 3 times from the library! I never thought I would say this about a book, but it would have been much better as a trilogy, then you could pause between sections.
Ash is a young woman who has become a very successful mercenary captain in Europe in the 1470s. She is successful because she hears voices during battle. As the story progresses she finds out that she is channeling a Stone Golem, which in turn is being used by Wild Machines that use the power of the pyramids.
The story of Ash is a recently found manuscript being translated by an modern academic, who, in email correspondence with his publisher, is discovering that Ash’s world is one that is an alternate world to the one we know. So it is also about alternative and parallel universes.
While all of this sounds odd and unbelievable, Gentle actually pulls it off. Partly because her knowledge and understanding of Medieval life builds a realistic world. But it is mainly because Ash is a very convincing character and the reason I kept on reading.