Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dutch Island Madness and Swedish Terror

Dutch Island Madness: The two books I have read recently have both been marrow chillers of the first order though set in completely different times and different locations. But the theme of both is a sadistic, power crazy person who commits horrifying acts of cruelty.

Greta Van der Rol's new book Die a Dry Death is one of those amazing stories that horrifies and at the same time forces you to read on and on. The story,set in 1629, arose from the real event of a Dutch ship, The Batavia, that ran aground on a reef, part of a group of tiny, uninhabitable islands off the western coast of Australia. When the ship foundered, the captain Adrian Jacobz, set sail in a small boat with a few of his sailors to get help. The remaining survivors, who included several women and children, were left on the islands while a substantial treasure and goods owned by the Dutch East Indies trading Co.remained on the foundered ship out on the reefs. From those who remained, a figure emerged who had hitherto been in the background, a clerical, quiet person who now took charge of the survivors. This soft-spoken, charming, cultured man now turned into a tyrant infinitely more cruel and dangerous than the sea and the reefs from which these hapless people thought they had escaped. Greta's imaginative portrayal of Cornelisz is brilliant. She shows how the desire to survive turns him into a monster and yet allows him moments of strange tenderness when in love. You feel almost sorry for him when his end is nigh. He has to my mind become The Dark Lover, the monster, who haunts so many women's books from Bronte to Mary Shelley.

DaDD is indeed a compelling tale and Greta has been fascinated by the story for twenty five years. Her writing skills are impeccable. One is drawn immediately into the scenario and carried on by the sheer power of her depiction, the characters she builds and the settings she creates. But it is an unrelentingly dark tale, so be warned, though a clever twist at the end helps to lift the story again and cheer the departing reader.

Swedish Terror: The second story I read after Die a Dry Death was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. A cold, Scandinavian atmosphere pervades this peculiar story set in Sweden (quite a contrast to my previous read set in the heat and dryness of the Australian islands.) TGwDT is a compelling, bang-up-to-date tale with real, flawed and interesting characters that one cares about. Lizbet Salander is a very modern heroine, brooding, surly, uncommunicative, angry and yet oddly tender and touching. Yet, despite her modernity, the tattoos, the rings in nose and lip, the punk hairstyles and clothes, she plays an ancient role and comes over as one of the vengeful Furies of Greek myth. She it is who really kicks ass, who turns the table deftly and brilliantly on those who offend her. She is, like any ancient goddess, in love with and protective of her hero.

But parts of the story bothered me, not because I'm sqeamish or insensate to the darkness of human nature, but bothered by the author's need to describe every horror in full, sickening detail. It left a sense like heavy meat, difficult to digest, lingering in one's mental stomach and at times quite sickening. Rape, incest, murder, animal cruelty and just about every other bestiality known to man is portrayed. Where does one go from there? These things obviously appeal as the books are now best sellers. Stieg Larsson is said to be making a point about the attitude of men to women (The original title in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women)the books are said to be a social indictment of our times. As if men's cruelty to women and the female desire for revenge was in any way new! It begs the question what sort of mind does the writer have that he or she can want to describe such horrors in detail? At the same time what sort of psyche do we all have that we wish to dive into such dark depths?

There comes a point when one must be satiated, deadened by it and will the tide then turn towards brighter, lighter, more uplifting works of fiction?

You need a strong stomach for both of these stories. But I feel they are worth reading for their power and brilliant characterisations.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Time Travelling

The film Time Traveller's Wife was a suprisingly good one. It managed to encapsulate a truly original, clever and suprisingly romantic story very well. However, I have to confess that in this instance the film was far more enjoyable than the book.

Not that the writing of the novel isn't superb. Audrey Niffennegger has some truly beautiful scenes and phrases and the dialogue and characters are very real. Chapters can end beautifully like this...

'She wrote me a poem', Clare says again in wonder. Tears are streaking down her cheeks. I put my arms around her and she's back, my wife, Clare, safe and sound, on the shore at last after the shipwreck, weeping like a little girl whose mother is waving to her from the deck of the foundering boat.'

It's just that it is far too long drawn out and over detailed. Every person is described in full, every little scene played out and most of the happenings are simply commonplace and unexciting explorations of family life. I appreciate that the attempted normality of the lives of the two main characters, Clare and Henry, contrasts with Henry DeTamble's strange affliction that causes him to travel back and forth in time, split into two people so that he is able to visit himself as a young boy, and other extraordinary happenings. In some respects it expresses how little we know and understand about people who we imagine we know intimately well. This is all brilliantly handled and at first one is enthralled and captured by the plot. But I'm half way through the book and now really tired of Henry's excursions back and forth, beginning to skip through chunks of words, wondering where it's all going, if it's going to get anywhere at all and if I care anymore.

Audrey, darling, we've got the idea of what happens when Henry suddenly leaves one dimension...and his clothes... behind him. You don't have to have scene after scene after scene...

How come editors shriek at one for two words of over-description and nobody made this writer delete some of her scenes and chapters to make this a far more readable story? Don't get me wrong. I love long stories. As a child I read War and Peace in two days. Try Edward Rutherford's amazing works like London, Russia, Sarum and so on. They are riveting from start to finish and truly satisfying. TTW is like having a delicious and enjoyable cake which is then served up at every meal till one is sick to death of the taste of it.
It strives to be spiritual and poignant and indeed, many scenes are just that; much sense is spoken, many deep questions and avenues explored and I know I shan't forget the essence of this story.

In the end, we all look for different things in a book. My daughter found The Time Traveller's Wife 'entrancing'. So that's a fair enough comment.

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.