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When Rip and I first fell in love, I sometimes used to imagine us as romantic characters in a great tempestuous love story set against the turbulent background of the miners’ strike, transgressing boundaries of wealth and claims to be together. I was his door into an exotic world where noble savages discussed socialism while soaping each other’s backs in t’ pit baths. He was my door into Pemberley Hall and Mansfield Park. We were so full of illusions about each other, maybe it was bound to end in a splattering.

I’m home alone this evening, which is why this review is being posted so late. See I’m someone who lacks any real self-discipline. This is why I am very lucky to be married, because if I ever slack off my wife kicks my arse. Stephanie is in Canberra today, so I have been pottering around the house, trying to convince our old dog to eat its medication, googling funny pictures with cats and generally not reviewing the book I chose this morning!

Finally I wrenched myself back to the business and found myself laughing out loud for most of this afternoon.

Georgie (aka Georgina aka Georgia aka Georgine) has been living a quiet life of writing freelance articles for a specialist magazine (“Adhesives!”), and managing to raise her two children while her husband synergises the world from his blackberry. One day something snaps. She kicks her husband out of the house, orders a skip and dumps all his belongings into it.

Which is how she comes to meet Mrs. Shapiro. An elderly Jewish lady followed by a pride of house-cats, Naomi Shapiro stops in front of Georgie’s house to retrieve Rip’s collection of classical records. The two begin a slow intimate friendship, with Georgie’s own attempts at a poisonous novel based on her own marriage dropped in favour of her new friend’s past, filled with tragic love, young lives ground up by the second world war and escape from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

Then Mrs. Shapiro has a bad fall and winds up in hospital. Georgie unwittingly has become her carer and it falls to her to have her home, stinking of cat-piss and damp, in order so that the hospital doesn’t have social services dump her friend in an institution. What began as an innocent friendship is soon swallowed up by bureaucratic fencing with hospital officials and wolfish estate agents. As Georgie slowly begins to piece together the history of Mrs Shapiro, the house itself becomes a disputed zone between several parties, all laying claim to the property. Meanwhile her own son has developed an obsession with religious prophecies about the end of the world. It is all too much for Georgie, her head swimming in eschatological trivia, disputed geography, inventive uses of velcro and, of course, the erotic uses of adhesives.

This story is warm, inventive and far cleverer than it has any right to be. The creation of the Israeli state, the Holocaust and apocalyptic prophecy, are all neatly bound up with one lonely middle-aged woman desire for a meaningful life. Throughout the novel seemingly innocent oppositions are teased out to reveal more fundamental conflict. Georgie break from Rip seems initially trivial, but the more we learn about their relationship, there appears an essential imbalance present from the very start. Her son’s pursuit of fundamentalist Christian concerns is a neat irony, showing how her hard-won parental liberalism is quick to collapse in the face of something so monolithic.

But it is Mrs Shapiro who proves to be the secret treasure of this book. Marina Lewycka‘s dialogue is quite funny and far more convincing than the tortured English of Alexander Perchov. With her random combinations of Yiddish and English slang I found her to be a far less self-conscious creation. Think Everything is Illuminated meets Sue Townsend, if you’ll pardon the high concept.

Witty, very clever and studied, a fine novel from Marina Lewycka. Strongly recommended.

Ah, the old doggie has gone to bed for the evening. That’s a relief.

I know where I am. I know more than they think. Earlier today someone with an officious voice said, close to my ear, ‘It is touch and go as to whether she will ever regain consciousness.’ Touch and go. Makes it sound like a children’s game.

This morning I had a talk with someone about reviewing. I argued that often I will rave about a book that might have a sloppy structure, or stereotypical characters, but it will get one thing just right and I’ll love it. It is that one connection with me as a reader that matters the most. However, on occasion I find myself reading something that is competent in every respect, but simply put leaves me cold.

A disturbed young woman boards a train to Edinburgh to meet her sisters and then moments later leaves on a return trip to London.  Then Alice Raikes, while standing at a traffic crossing, steps directly into the path of oncoming cars and is seriously injured.

The family gathers at her bedside in hospital, her parents Ben and Ann desperately trying to understand what may have compelled their daughter to try and take her own life. We discover that Alice has lived a turbulent life touched by tragedy. Formerly a free spirit, more vivacious than her bookish siblings and reserved father, she has been left broken by an abruptly ended relationship. Was it this that led to her suicide attempt?

The reader witnesses the thoughts of three generations of the Raikes women. Alice and Ann have more in common than they know, while the deceased Elspeth continues to appear as a ghostly presence throughout the novel. Her function in the plot is to define Ann as a young girl whose life turned in an unexpected direction and before she knew it she was a mother to three young women, recently also a grandmother.

One of the few men to assume the role of narrator briefly is Alice’s lover John. Aside from the gentle natured Ben Raikes, he is one of the few positive male characters featured in the novel. O’Farrell defines the men in Alice’s past, as well as Ann’s, are domineering and grasping. A Jewish Londoner trapped between his love for the wild-natured Scot and his family’s traditions, John is portrayed as an almost entirely selfless character. Everyone else is either living a secret double life, or blind to the problems of others.

This is a book about self-involved people frustrated by the course of their lives. Alice’s suicide attempt appears to be premeditated, with the majority of the novel concerned with unravelling the possible cause. The action skips from the perspectives of the three Raikes women, backwards and forwards through time. In some ways I found this book reminiscent of Everything Is Illuminated, also concerned with secret family histories and tragic eruptions. The post-modern reliance on narrators who lie to the reader as much as themselves is a common device, not to mention the time skipping (although over a shorter period of time in O’Farrell’s novel).

Whereas Safran Foer tackled his mashed-up style with alacrity, however, O’Farrell’s approach is far more leaden. I felt no sympathy to either Alice, or Ann, who both after a time seemed to become interchangeable. Despite one of them being in a coma for the duration of the novel! The inclusion of a sub-plot relating the stresses placed on young love due to different cultural traditions, in this case Judaism, felt tacked on.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, my chief frustration with this book is that overall it is quite well written, but I was simply unable to engage with the proceedings and was left wishing it was several chapters shorter. Ultimately After You’d Gone feels like a digression into the lives of three women twisted by sadness, one that you could afford to miss.

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

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