Sunday, 26 April 2015

Mini reviews: Anna North, Tomás Eloy Martínez, Eben Venter

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna NorthThe Life and Death of Sophie Stark (19 May 2015) by Anna North

Anna North's second novel announces itself as a book that 'tells a story of fame, love, and legacy through the propulsive rise of an iconoclastic artist' - the titular Sophie Stark, a young filmmaker. Its narrative employs a 'chorus of voices' to portray the development of Sophie's career and the correlative disintegration of her relationships.

The narrators range from fascinating - Allison, Sophie's protégé and lover; Robbie, Sophie's brother - to annoying and slightly dull. But because Sophie herself is rarely heard from (and even then it's just her words as remembered by others), she's more of a conduit for other people's desires than a rounded character, a believable person, or someone you can truly care about. Twisted and broken up and reformed through the stories of those who knew her, she is not seen truthfully - naturally, of course, but this makes it a struggle to form any image of her beyond someone else's fantasy. She emerges as a character who is complicated, but not necessarily believable or nuanced, in her contradictions, and her arc is ultimately more one-note than it should/could be. The ending seemed limp, and I felt as if there should be more - some wider appraisal of her life.

That sounds completely negative; in fact, I did actually really enjoy reading this book. It's compulsive and very readable, there are some beautiful moments within the various stories, and I read it with great eagerness to know what would happen next. I did feel, however, that it was overall quite a flimsy story that missed opportunities to explore the scope of Sophie's life and the significance of her art. It also suffers from its similarities to Siri Hustvedt's brilliant The Blazing World, which is a more mature and intellectually engaging treatment of the same idea.

Rating: 7/10 | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

The Tango Singer by Tomas Eloy Martinez The Tango Singer (2001, translated 2004) by Tomás Eloy Martínez

The Tango Singer is a wonderfully resonant tour of Buenos Aires, its labyrinthine streets and twin histories: the political and the literary. Our narrator is Bruno Cadogan, a PhD student who travels to the city to research his thesis - a study of Jorge Luis Borges' essays on the origins of the tango - and instead finds himself mesmerised by the recent legend of a tango singer, the near-mythical Julio Martel. Rumoured to have an incomparably beautiful voice which has never been recorded, Martel performs at random, unannounced, on obscure street corners. Bruno's mounting obsession with hearing the singer leads him on a disordered, dreamlike journey around the city, taking in the voices and stories of many other characters from the past and present of Buenos Aires.

Martínez draws heavily on Borges' work: his short story 'The Aleph' forms the basis of one of Bruno's main obsessions, as he and a friend/lover conspire to gain access to the basement of their boarding-house to entice tourists to its supposed location. In Borges' story, the aleph appears as 'a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance' through which everything, all the universe, infinity, can be glimpsed. At first, this is just a ploy to make money; later, Bruno becomes convinced the aleph truly exists. This is just one example of the way the story spirals into an almost hallucinatory state, with the structure of the novel reflecting both the topography of Buenos Aires and its protagonist's disorientation.

If you enjoy the sort of book that really transports you to another place, I'd recommend this: more than anything else, it's a portrait of a character falling in love with a city. Martínez has a style that's lucid in every sense of the word, and the book is somehow full of texture, coming alive with the heat and the music of its setting.

Rating: 8/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Wolf, Wolf by Eben VenterWolf, Wolf (2013) by Eben Venter

I've written a full review of this on Goodreads, but it's basically a load of rambling, because it's very hard to get a handle on Wolf, Wolf. It's a dense, complicated novel that's not necessarily an easy read, and can be an uncomfortable one, but is nevertheless very rewarding.

In simple terms it's about a South African man in his thirties - Mattheüs Duiker - and his relationship with his dying father, Benjamin. But it has many diversions and addresses a number of themes. It's an examination of masculinity in which Mattheüs' sexuality is put under the spotlight: his father has never been able to accept the fact that he's gay, and his addiction to internet porn has become an obsession so dominant that that drives a wedge between Mattheüs and his on-off lover Jack. It's about growing up, and the relationship between dreams, ambitions and reality, as Mattheüs strives towards a goal - opening a healthy takeaway - that's both a rejection of his father's values and a way to gain his acceptance. It's about communication and miscommunication within families and other relationships. Full of symbolism, the story offers no easy answers for its difficult and often hard-to-like characters.

If you're looking for something with a structured plot and neat resolutions, you won't find them here. Towards the end, things become ever more horrible for the embattled Mattheüs, who sinks deeper into failure and despair. The book ends on a poignant note as he resolves to atone for past mistakes, not knowing that elsewhere, a tragedy has ensured his dreams are - once again - impossible. Wolf, Wolf itself, though, is a satisfying novel, a potent depiction of one family that also acts as a broader portrait of contemporary manhood and post-apartheid South Africa.

Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

I received an advance review copy of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark from the publisher through NetGalley.

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