Book club: To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Based at the end of the 19th century, To the Bright Edge of the World is a tale of exploration of the newly-acquired Alaskan territory by the US government. Its a story of two halves; Allen, the expedition leader whose mission is to journey up the Wolverine river and his wife, Sophie, who is left behind at the Vancouver barracks.

The novel has been critically acclaimed, with Ivey’s use of diary entries supposedly adding depth with excellent authorial tones, and the descriptive hardships of the Alaskan wilderness providing the contrasting grit and moodiness that shape the novel. I will say from the outset, that I simply did not feel this way about this book.

Ivey’s descriptions of Alaska are wonderful; from the landscape to the native indians residing there and the mystical beliefs the explorers encountered and dealt with during their time there. But it is the diary entries from Sophie that, for me, let this book down. They are excessively long, contain letters from other minor characters that are full of technical details about photography and do little to progress the story. Sophie’s character is curious, but the trivialities of her socialite life in Vancouver only serve to detract from Allen’s adventures and hardships, not to bolster them. Whilst Sophie’s diary entries give the reader an insight into the life of a privileged newlywed in that era and the social attitudes of the time, Ivey could quite easily have cut Sophie out of the book entirely; for me, the intrigue lay solely with Allen in Alaska and I found myself quickly reading or even flipping through Sophie’s rather tedious writings.

Allen’s task is gripping from the very beginning. His mission seemingly impossible, not least due to the environment and weather conditions he finds himself in, but the constant threat of violence he has been warned to expect from the native indians. As a character, Allen is professional; he is a soldier sent to map the territory and that is what he intends to do. His emotions rarely go deeper than to describe his surroundings and his sense of unease or surprise. He is not a dramatic man, and that is perhaps why I find him more endearing and believable. I almost forgot I was reading a diary entry on many occasions, and felt as though I was there seeing it through his eyes and could form my own emotions from it.

What really brings this story to life is Ivey’s reference to the mystical; occurrences that Allen and his men cannot explain, but that fill them with a mix of trepidation, awe and fear. Men who are otters, women who bring fog in their wake and babies born of trees. The weather inducing hallucinations and crippling anxiety of encountering cannibals. And the raven; the harbinger of death in human form. Subtle references yet magical, giving the reader a sense of the otherwordly, untouched wildness of Alaska.

My love of adventure and exploration was satisfied with To the Bright Edge of the World, but it was not a fictional masterpiece. Too many pieces were missing to make it a completely rounded story in its own right; Sophie’s character and her position should have been stronger if it were to feature at all. All of those pages lost to her could have been utilised to bring more emotion and suspense to the goings on in Alaska.

Worth a read, if you can get past the first few chapters.

ivey

The 3 W’s

This is my first time taking part in WWW – a meme revived by Taking on a World of Words. So here goes, my 3 WWW’s!

What are you currently reading?

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey. Its written in a diary form which would usually put me off, but its so captivating! Ivey is quite an artist at describing the turmoil the expeditioners faced traversing Alaska and I’m enjoying every page so far. It’s a bit like a re-imagining of the Scott expedition to the Antarctic, but less like a present-day documentary and more a story of colonization and long distance love. Its beautifully raw.

What did you recently finish reading?

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It was a brilliant read, but not as good as A Thousand Splendid Suns in my opinion (though many people think the opposite). I would definitely recommend you read both if you haven’t already as they really had an impact on how I view the current conflict in Afghanistan and other parts of the world; a more humane view point that the news is unable to portray.

What do you think you’ll read next?

I’m not sure. I tend to read whatever takes my fancy at the time, but Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is on my list so I might give that a go. I have no idea what it is about (apart from, maybe, a girl called Elizabeth who goes missing?) so I’ll let you know how I get on with it.

What are you guys reading? Let me know if you have any recommendations!

Book club: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini, the author famous for The Kite Runner, delights once again with A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Beginning in Afghanistan in the 70’s, Hosseini takes us on a journey through time, seen from the eyes of two young girls, Mariam and Laila. Enlightening and horrifying, A Thousand Splendid Suns will keep you turning the pages well into the early hours.

Mariam’s story is concise; the reader has but a small window into her modest upbringing on the outskirts of Herat. Longing for acceptance and unwilling to admit to herself the harshness of such a patriarchal society, she unwittingly changes her life forever through one small hot-headed act of love. Forced to marry, an arrangement designed to suit only her burdened ‘family’, she is lead into a life of domestic servitude, bending the knee to her husband’s every whim. Her story is perhaps not unexpected, and the violence she bears is upsetting but all too realistic.

Laila is a different breed. Born to educated parents she believes that society should treat men and women equally. A fighter, but having to submit with the change of the political tide and war, she becomes a survivor.

Laila’s ending is far happier than Mariam’s, though in a way I cannot help but feel that Laila’s story is less believable. I was left feeling hope that the Afghanistani people will be able to rebuild their lives, yet I cannot help but feel that this was premature; the tale concludes a mere year or so after the terror attack of 9/11 and whilst the Afghani people may no longer be subject to civil war, etc, they were about to face war from the Americans and there is little mention of that in the closing pages.

However, aside from a perhaps more hopeful and unrealistic ending, A Thousand Splendid Sons does not disappoint. Harrowing but an altogether brilliant read for any type of reader. Hosseini is a true artist and has a way of stripping back a reader’s emotions to their rawest, purest form. It is honestly one of the best novels I have read in many years and, in my opinion, far surpasses the acclaim of The Kite Runner.

Book club: The Girls by Emma Cline

Imagine being in a desert, the beads of day-old sweat clinging to your body, inching down your back and dampening your clothes. The heat rising from the dirt, causing a haze over the horizon even though it’s only mid-morning. Your hair slightly matted, dirt and sand under your fingernails. Your throat dry, croaking.

That is what The Girls instantly brings to my mind. Not an image, but a feeling of being parched and withered from the sun. Slightly dirty, sweaty and breathless.

The Girls is set in 1960’s America, a fiction based around the cult formed by Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders. It is both a coming of age story and a horrifying tale of psychological vulnerability. The novel centers around Evie, a young girl whom is hoodwinked by the glamour of freedom, fuelled by an ideology of sex and drugs.

But it is not quite the tale you’d expect from a naive teenager, aching to be accepted. Her fixation is not with the cult leader, but one of his associates, Suzanne. At first I thought Evie’s obsession lay in her wish to be loved by her family, wanted by her friends and, like every teenager, to be desirable by her peers. Ultimately, I thought Evie was just an ignorant selfish teenager like many others; having arguments with her parents, not doing chores round the house, finding a reason to rebel.

Evie’s obsession with Suzanne deepens quite rapidly. At first it seems like a sexual awakening but you have to read between the lines; it is much more than that. Evie relies on Suzanne – without Suzanne she would not have been accepted into the group in the first place let alone achieve a high place within it. She yearns to be like Suzanne in every possible way, to gain praise from her and each touch is like a prize in itself.

The Girls brilliantly depicts how a seemingly ordinary teenager could so easily succumb to such a way of life. Whilst the grooming is clear throughout the novel, it is gradual to the reader due to the way the narrative is structured; jumping from present day and back again with recollections interspersed throughout. The brain-washing seems to be of Evie’s own doing though – if I am even allowed to say that. She recognises from the outset all that is wrong with the group on the face if it; the rotten environment, the unwashed bodies and clothes, the ‘tangy breath’ and children roaming wild across a rubbish-strewn site. She sees first hand the poverty they are living in, the crimes they must commit to maintain their existence, but she makes excuses for it. By the closing chapters Evie is accepting of it; she judges a newly found friend for seeing what the group’s situations really is – dire – and dismisses him in case his association rubs off on her.

Evie is of course a fictional character but her ‘experiences’ have been watered down somewhat. Perhaps so as to gain the reader’s sympathy, or perhaps Cline was worried that some may be unable to finish her work if it was too dark and true to the actual events.

I have ignored until now the other character in this book, not Suzanne but the cult leader Russell who is fashioned on Charles Manson himself. Whilst the real Manson was extremely manipulative and used his followers to commit all manner of sins, as well as physically, sexually and psychologically assaulting them himself, Russell does not have that harshness, and that is something that I think I lacking in the novel. The novel concludes with several murders, committed by Suzanne and other followers, but their desire and vacant acceptance of their instructions by Russell has not had time to manifest in the reader. In short, I felt the murders themselves to come out of nowhere and lacked any foundation. This may have been Cline’s intention all along so that the reader was side-tracked by Evie’s wanton desire and fixations but at some level I would have preferred to have had Evie observe Russell’s treatment of the others in a more stark and violent manner so as to understand Suzanne et al’s motivation for committing the crimes they did. I, of course, do have an imagination and can fill in the blanks for myself, but when a novel is based around true events I feel it is for Cline to bring the shock factor and show readers what is must have been like in that cult.

Overall, The Girls is beautifully written and really instills feelings of teenage curiosity, hope, frustration and obsession in the reader which makes it a real page-turner.