Short listed for the booker prize 2011. I'm not sure what I expected from this but it wasn't what I thought it would be. Very good at creating a tawdry, cheap and corrupt atmosphere, this novel makes you feel like you've sullied your hands just by picking it up.
The books starts by the narrator, Nick, beginning a 'letter' (the book) to someone. You don't know who the someone is, but suspect a woman, and none of the details linking Nick to this woman are known until well over half way through the book. However most of the details of Nick's story involves a Russian woman that's he falls madly in love with, and he into great detail about this affair, which you can't help but feel is unwise if he is writing to another woman. Who is the mystery woman, and why do feel that the Russian woman is a bad 'un even though you can't put your finger on why?
I did feel I wanted to shake Nick. He is a slave to parts of is anatomy which don't have a brain. He sort of knows he is getting into a bad situation, but he doesn't really care- as if he is slightly bored, and quite likes being naughty. The fatalism of Nick and his anatomy is quite annoying at times. He appears to have no will at all, but claims to have one of the happiest days/nights of his life with his Russain lady; he closes his eyes to the obvious manipulation of his Russain companions, and the fear around him. You know there will be tears before bedtime. By the end of the book I despised him.
I did like the description of the descent into Russian winter. The cold is dangerous, beautiful, and mirrors Nick's diminishing sense of free will.
Saturday, 17 December 2011
Reading this book, like the Summer Book by the same author, leaves you with a feeling of being covered with a soft snowy blanket, blocking out noise and busyness. This book is actually set in winter and summer, split into three sections with the middle section set in summer. I felt 'summer' should perhaps have stayed with the Summer Book, however it did add a sense of the year turning, of seasons. Winter melts into summer and in turn freezes into winter again.
Winter on the author's island is harsh and isolated. A handful of stories particularly resonated with me because to me they demonstrated pure imagination and atmosphere, reminiscent of the Moomin stories for which the author became well known.
'Snow' is about the author as a young girl, house sitting with her mother. It's not clear why they are in the house, possibly so that her artist mother can paint in peace and quiet. The girl feels suffocated by the isolation in the house and the snowstorm which seems to eventually cove the entire house. The girl imagines that the house is entirely covered to the rooftop, causing it to tip over, disorientating the senses.
Another story of complete imagination is 'Flying', where the narrator, again as a girl, imagines everyone in the village has developed the ability to fly. Neighbours have rooftop tea, and the little girl worries about what will happen if everyone loses their ability to fly. But she lives in the moment and she soars above the houses with friends and animals.
The 'Squirrel' is a tale told by the narrator as an elderly woman, isolated on her island home with winter coming, making preparations around the home. She shares her home and space with a squirrel, almost becoming obsessed with it but becoming angry at its unpredictable wildness. These are stories essentially about life and growing old and the demands of these on our minds and bodies. Sometimes the stories are not easy reading but these and those stories of 'The Summer Book' lurk in the memory long after the covers are closed.