John LeCarre’s A Delicate Truth is pure delight. I haven’t enjoyed a novel of his this much since The Little Drummer Girl, my LeCarre favourite. Though, mind you, all LeCarre’s novels are either very good or excellent.
The subtlety of the characters and the multi-layered plot make this a great read. LeCarre is a master at combining the spy world with interesting psychological portraits of people. I also enjoy the social and political comment. Normally, I don’t go for the whistle-blower theme, but this novel is just so satisfying, from the very beginning to the last page.
The Missing Shade of Blue did not disappoint. A delightful read, really. The relationships became messy indeed, and the novel never got stuck in a particular genre. The novel contains many spirited, clever conversations mixed with everyday life and a bit of feel-good and pathos in equal portions.
The play on words became a bit forced sometimes (“I thought he meant…when he said ‘seeing someone’ “), and the philosophical discussions a bit laboured at times (“But is there really such a thing like free will?”). However, a lot of the philosophy and the linguistics were worked into the story really well.
If you’re looking for an intelligent novel with a mix of the hilarious and the absurd, this might be just the book for you.
I saw The Missing Shade of Blue by Jennie Erdal reveiwed in the Economist the other week. When it said it was about a translator and messy relationships – along with lots of references to Hume, philosphy and linguistics – I decided instantly that this was a book for me. I popped into the BookWorld in the Dubai Mall and there it was on the shelf! Living in the UAE, it’s not always easy to lay your hands on a newly reviewed book, but this time I was lucky. Not many minutes elapsed between me reading the Economist review on my iPad and paying for the book. The BookWorld is quickly becoming my favourite bookshop in the UAE.
I’m on page 86 at the moment and I’m not disappointed. I love the writing style. It’s subtle, ironic, with understatements and quirky details. For example, a university librarian at the National Library in Edinburgh has a cough that is a “perfect trochaic tetrameter”, matching the Shakespeare line “So awake when I am gone; for I must now to Oberon” – except that it is “one cough short”. This is exactly the kind of observation that makes a character interesting.
Now, I’m waiting for the relationships to get messy.
Spoiler alert! It’s kind of interesting that I wrote “this novel has got bite” in my last review of The House of the Mosque. I was about three-quarter through the book at that stage, and the charming, picturesque portrait of the house and the mosque and the people around it started to give way to a harsher realism. Just a few pages later, the story turned quite brutal and the narration became a stinging critique of the way the Iranian Revolution played out. Clever structure and a real turnaround. Quite a surprise as well, which is why I think it’s a good read. Yet, the language was surprisingly constrained and the narration still kept a certain distance to events.
Looking back at the novel as a whole, I feel that (as mentioned earlier) the first half or so of the book paints a picture of a society that is ordered and in harmony with itself. It’s Iranian society as a well-woven fabric with many different strands and threads, but it’s a complete whole. In the second half of the novel, this fabric is slowly, but cruelly – and very brutally – destroyed, ripped to bits. When order is restored at the end, it’s primarily done by describing harmony returning as an internal, personal process.
My earlier thoughts about the narrator were both shattered and confirmed in the last couple of pages when he introduced himself as one of the characters in the book, Shahbal. I somehow managed to miss the note on Sahhbal as the narrator on the characters page! He’s now living in Holland, and is someone who seems very similar to the author. With Shahbal as the narrator, it confirms the early feeling I had that the house of the mosque itself was the narrator – the house is telling its story. But as Shahbal is drawn away from the house and becomes involved in the bigger picture, the narrative voice gets a wider scope as well. The voice is a bit school-teachery in a way – it has a message – but you can discern the person underneath, someone who wants to convey a message through a story, someone who wants to provide clarity.
I get the feeling that this novel follows the conventions of some form of Iranian narrative style – of which I’m not familiar – and the ending is kind of too tidy for my taste. But be that as it may, I got a lot out of reading this novel and the story is haunting. Memorable. Definitely a worthwhile read.
I’m three-quarter through The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah. I can’t decide if this novel is really disjointed or cleverly multifaceted. It kind of jumps here and there. However, this novel has got bite.
I have to revise my earlier comments about the omniscient narrator. A few pages after I wrote my last post, I came to the conclusion that the narrator wasn’t really omniscient. Basically it was the House of the Mosque who was the narrator. Even though you learnt a lot about the different characters in the book, and saw events from different viewpoints, the centre of gravity and the focus of the narrator’s voice was in the House of the Mosque itself – not Qom, Tehran, Isfahan or some other part of Iran.
So, is the story disjointed or multifaceted? Well, like a large house with many rooms, this novel has many rooms, and as a reader you kind of walk in and out of these rooms. So right now, I’m with multifaceted rather than disjointed. The novel has a large number of unique, personal and delightful episodes and it’s weaving a fabric that becomes more and more distinct. I guess it’s the fabric of Iran.
You’ve got a lot of “serious fiction” moments. Great characterisation. Delightful details. But then you’ve suddenly got action and excitement. Sudden surprises. And with the passing of time, elements of an epic creeps in.
Over the last fifty pages or so, a lot of history has suddenly been introduced into the story. The focus actually varies a bit now between the House of the Mosque and events in Tehran, Iraq and Paris. And the House-of-the-Mosque narrator is becoming more of a liberal, taking sides, with a whiff of an academic who has thought a great deal about events in Iran over the past fifty-sixty years.
It’s a great read. I like it. It calls a spade a spade. It’s got bite. It’s not just a story with great character and local flair.
I’ve started reading a novel called The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah. It caught my eye as I walked into Book World at Dubai Mall last month.
It’s set in Iran in the 1950s. It was written in 2005 and translated into English in 2010. The writing style is succinct and seems to find the right balance between austere and flowery. The narrative voice is interesting and is already quite personal, but the third-person omniscient narrator mode feels a bit passé, a bit like a school teacher.
Very enjoyable though. Let’s see where the author takes this narrative voice.
When I reached the final page of 1Q84 – page 925 – I felt very satisfied. IQ84 is a rich tapestry of themes and genres. The fact that you never really know where it is going in terms of style – when realism turns to magical realism turns to sci-fi turns to a love story turns to fantasy turns to whodunnit – you constantly have to revisit what you read earlier.
This was an intelligent and well written novel, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading. And kudos to the translator! Never once did it read like it was a translation. In fact, when I saw the Japanese version of the novel at the Book World bookshop at the Dubai Mall, I had to open it to make sure there actually was a Japanese version in print.