24 March 2015

Atonement by Ian McEwan, UK, 2001

Simply stated, this is the story of how a misdeed - motivated by the perpetrator's misunderstanding of a situation and a misguided desire to do good - impacts on the members of an upper-class English family during the 1930s and beyond. But nothing is quite that simple, and other people's needs and misdeeds are skilfully woven into the main story to produce a multi-layered and thought-provoking tale where one can question who was actually responsible and whether or not the resulting need for atonement was limited to only one person.

Briony, the character at the centre of the story, is introduced at the beginning of the novel as a naive, self-centred thirteen year old with a vivid, if somewhat immature, imagination. Although life attempts to teach her that the real world is very different to the one she harbours in her imagination, I feel that the grown-up Briony never completely relinquishes her thirteen-year-old self.

McEwan's writing is impeccable with an obvious understanding of the social class of which he is writing. There are some beautiful descriptive passages, and the story - of the misdeed and the eventual atonement - develops without fanfare, similar to a creek becoming a brook before becoming a fully-fledged river. That the lead up to the actual deed occupies almost half of the book can be frustrating at times given the fact that it is obvious that something is going to happen; however, these pages become more provocative when later viewed alongside the happenings of the second half of the book.

Whether or not atonement was actually made by the right person or persons is something that only the reader can decide for him/herself. A book that is definitely worth reading. 

 Photo of Ian McEwan from

17 March 2015

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer, UK, 2014

This small book can easily be read in one sitting. It is not a novel, but it is a collection of thoughts on the necessity of stillness - the ability to go everywhere by going nowhere. In this day and age where everyone is constantly hurrying somewhere, it is a breath of fresh air to read that it is okay - in fact, it is encouraged - to sit all day in a room looking out on an unchanging view. The 'all day' is an exaggeration, half-an-hour is quite sufficient, but the message is the same: we need to be still to appreciate where we are going; we need to go Nowhere in order to go Somewhere.

The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs from the Icelandic photographer Eydís S. Luna Einarsdóttir.

Photo of Pico Iyer from

10 March 2015

Mord under Tjörn Runt by Ramona Fransson, Sweden, 2010

Mord under Tjörn Runt (which is about a murder that takes place during the annual sailing race around Tjörn in Sweden) is a criminal thriller, and I fully agree with the person who wrote on the back cover: a thriller should not be transparent. On the other hand, it should not be as convoluted and as messy as Mord under Tjörn Runt.

I can understand that Ramona Fransson wanted to create an atmosphere of suspense; however, she has done this by throwing out a lot of unnecessary leads that really have nothing to do with the main story; she also tends to concentrate very much on characters who, it turns out, are only secondary or even tertiary to the main plot. The twists and turns in the plot happen with very little connection to what has gone before, and though, when when one looks back at the story as a whole, it is possible to see some kind of a vague thread joining up the main points in the plot, this is not obvious while reading the book. Normally, this would be part of a thriller's strength, but in this case, it simply underlines the book's confusion.

It is a hotchpotch of ideas, almost as if the book had to touch on everything: murder, incest, bondage, paedophilia, disability, unfaithfulness, greed, suicide, death of police while on duty... The list could go on an on. It was actually a relief to reach the last page. As far as I know, the book has not yet been translated into English.

Information about Ramona Fransson in English
Photo of Ramona Fransson from

03 March 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, UK, 2015

I loved this book, Kazuo Ishiguro's newest novel which has only just been published. I was extremely fortunate: I received a free copy of the book from the bookseller Dymocks in return for a review, which they have now received and which, with their permission, I am also posting here on my blog. 

The writing is superb, catching the beautiful nuances of the story, which on one level is an imaginary journey complete with fantasy animals and sword-wielding knights, while on another level, it provides a glimpse at post-Arthurian England where old enmities between Briton and Saxon, though dormant, are likely to be being revived. It is, however, the third and deepest level – the journey through life itself and the importance both of remembering and forgetting – that is the most absorbing.

  Photo of Kazuo Ishiguro from

Set sometime in the sixth century, the story is entwined around the two main characters, Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who set out on a journey to find their son. The world as they know it is covered in mist which, we gradually learn, is the breath of a dragon. The mist makes people forget, and Axl and Beatrice want to be able to retrieve their memories, but there are times during the journey when they are not sure if they really want to remember; perhaps they will remember bad things that have happened and things that they would have preferred to have forgotten. As Axl reflects at the end of the book, perhaps forgetting allows for healing.

The style, including both description and turns of speech, beautifully captures the feeling and the atmosphere of the period, imagined or otherwise, and simply from the perspective of the language, the book is a delight to read.

The Buried Giant is about a journey, a journey that we all must make, but it is also about what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. It is also a reminder that obstacles need not be obstacles and that things we may perceive as being negative and restrictive – even forgetfulness – may in fact be our salvation. An absolutely wonderful book and one that I warmly recommend.