A Common Loss (2012) by Kirsten Tranter
At the beginning of chapter two of A Common Loss, Kirsten Tranter writes: 'This isn't going to be one of those stories about a suburban boy seduced into a picturesque world of wealth and charm by a group of high-class eccentrics.' And I think, 'damn, why the hell not?!'
Tranter's excellent debut, The Legacy, was very much one of those stories, or at least in the tradition of that kind of story, enough that I drew comparisons with both Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History when writing my review of it. (It still bothers me that I didn't give The Legacy ten out of ten - when I think of how it stands out in my memory, and how most other books I've read since compare to it, it certainly deserves that score, but I believe in letting reviews stand as they are. If I ever re-read it, the rating will most likely go up.) With A Common Loss she makes a departure from the themes of her debut, with a story that's also about a group of close-knit friends, but with a dramatically different feel.
Elliot, Brian, Tallis, Cameron and Dylan became good friends at university and have remained close ever since, although their bonds have started to break down over the years: two of the group barely even speak anymore. Still, all of them feel duty-bound to take a yearly trip to Las Vegas, a holiday without girlfriends or other friends that's become something of a tradition. When Dylan dies in a car accident, the need for this trip is stronger than ever, even as the others fear they've lost the glue that held them together. However, it soon becomes apparent that Dylan was harbouring many secrets, both about his own past and about bad things - from the minor to the potentially life-ruining - his friends had done at various points during their acquaintance.
You know how people will sometimes describe a book as being a 'love letter' to the city, town etc it's set in? Well, A Common Loss is an anti-love letter to Las Vegas. It emphasises everything that's sleazy, dirty, cheap and fake about the place. On top of that, every single one of the characters is horrible, from the Nice Guy™ narrator Elliot, to stereotypical womaniser Tallis, to Natasha, Elliot's featureless and offhand love interest. This is not always an easy read, since it's hard to summon any sympathy for the main characters and the antagonist is equally hateful. But A Common Loss isn't really the mystery it presents itself as. It's not about the secrets the friends are trying to hide - not really about what those secrets actually are, anyway - or the question of Dylan's honesty, or the consequences of the group being blackmailed. It's about loss, reality versus artifice, the routine disappointments of life, how relationships are formed, how much we really (don't) know about those close to us, and ultimately, most of all, the disintegration of friendships. The little incidents that slip between the lines and appear irrelevant to the major plot points are far more important than anything else.
I must admit that the themes of this book, and the unpleasant characters, were a bit of a disappointment to me after The Legacy, but the more I think about A Common Loss, the more I love it. While I didn't enjoy reading it as much as I did Tranter's debut, it's a more complex and nuanced work. The language is clear and lucid: the devil is in the detail with this story, and the detail is beautifully rendered. A melancholy, contemplative story that won't be to everyone's taste, this book confirmed my belief in the author's talent and her very distinctive voice.
American Dervish (2012) by Ayad Akhtar
Told mostly in flashbacks to the early 1980s, this coming-of-age novel focuses on Hayat Shah, a young Pakistani boy growing up in the American suburbs. Much of the plot revolves around his first crush on his 'auntie' Mina, his mother's best friend, who comes to stay with the family having fled her parents and husband in Pakistan. With Hayat's Westernised family lacking in any strong religious convictions, it falls to Mina to teach him about Islam, and a combination of youthful confusion and his burgeoning 'love' for Mina results in the boy becoming obsessed with the teachings of the Quran. When Mina becomes involved with Nathan Wolfsohn, a Jewish friend of the family, Hayat's jealousy, emotional confusion and religious fervour lead him to take actions which - as you might expect - have terrible consequences for almost everyone.
Hayat is an engaging, likeable narrator and his journeys, both personal and religious, are related in a believable style. The naive purity of his adoration of Mina is touching, and his relationship with his parents, often awkward but full of love, is sensitively portrayed. His religious awakening, too, is carefully handled - he experiences great enlightenment, but is also exposed at an impressionable age to extremist views which threaten to warp his mindset and damage those he cares for. As a backdrop, the multiculturalism of the local community is very interesting, although there were times when I wished I could step outside Hayat's first-person viewpoint and learn more about his family, neighbours and acquaintances.
I found American Dervish a pleasurable enough read: however, it moves at a leisurely pace to say the least. Nothing dramatic happens until halfway through the book, and even then, the 'action' is very subdued. Although I liked the story throughout, I often found it difficult to summon up any motivation to keep reading, and spent chapter after chapter wondering exactly where it was going. The prose style is nice, and flows well enough, but it's occasionally clumsy: I did feel at some points as though the book could have benefited from better editing.
This is not a story in which the characters are given neat, happy endings - Hayat is the only one whose life appears to reach a positive conclusion, and even then it's bittersweet. The sometimes bleak story arc is admirable, but it can make what happens seem dull at points, and the reader is denied the dramatic showdowns, romantic reunions etc that could have been portrayed in a less realistic version of this story. In the end, the realism of American Dervish is both a plus and a minus. It makes the book feel 'better', more literary, more of an achievement - but it also makes it far less compelling than it could have been.