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10 novels I wrestled with .. and sometimes failed

The topic for this week’ s Top Ten Tuesday meme is all about books that were a struggle to get through.

Lets start with two that were such a struggle I never made it to the final page. They were both Booker prize winners.

1. The Famished Road by Ben Okri was the first Booker winner that I failed to finish. In fact I barely got off the starting blocks with this one because the first chapter was so full of what seemed to me pretentious magical realism nonsense that I simply could not bear to read any more. This is the opening sentence:

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

Now I was ok with the first two sentences but the third pulled  me up short. It just didn’t make any sense – why is a river hungry and why is it more hungry than a road?

The book continued in similar odd style about  some spirit child whose siblings want to rescue him from the human world. I made it to page 80 and then lost patience.

finkler question-12. I fared better with The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson in the sense that I read more of it before it too, was abandoned.  The issue this time wasn’t pretentiousness; I just found the book boring. I could have persevered to the end but it would have been a real self ad that’s now how I want to use my time. Reading should be a pleasure not a chore. My review is here.

Let’s move on to a few novels that I did finish even though sometimes it was a painful experience.

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Yes I know it’s a classic (it will celebrate its bicentenary next year)  and I know it was an exceptionally bold book particularly from a female writer. As I said in a post earlier this week, there are some parts which I think work really well. Who can forget the passage when Dr Frankenstein first set the creature he has formed as a result of  his experiment:

It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

It all went downhill from there on unfortunately with some ludicrously improbable plot developments. Even a memorable scene towards the end where Frankenstein and the creature are engaged in a battle on the Arctic ice field  failed to rescue the book for me.

Now I bet you are wondering why, if I disliked this book so intensely, I read it to the end. The answer is simple – it was required reading for a course I was taking with the Open University about realism in the novel. We were asked to consider how even within a novel held as a prime example of the Gothic genre, it was possible to find many characteristics of realism.

Another set text for the Open University, although in a different module, also proved challenging for me.

dracula.jpg4. In my young teens I saw countless Dracula films ( my dad liked them but was too scared to go on his own) but I never got around to reading the Bram Stoker novel until about 2005. I took it on holiday and remember being transfixed by the first section which is set in Dracula’s castle in Trannsylvania. Jonathan Harker is a solicitor sent to provide legal support for a property transaction  but after a few days at the castle realises he is effectively a prisoner and that his host has some strange powers. Worse follows when he encounters three female vampires who simultaneously entrance and repulse him. Stoker is masterful at building the suspense in this section – real ‘ hold your breath’ kind of writing. The rest of the novel is essentially an adventure story with good ranged against evil. The Count gets to London but has to contend with the forces of good in the form of Harker’s fiance and an odd character by the name of Van Helsing.  They and a few others begin rushing around London to try and track down Dracula and eradicate him. It’s all good fun if rather silly at times but the major obstacle for me was the dreadful manner in which Stoker renders Van Helsing’s speech. He’s meant to be an eminent scientist, a doctor, philosopher, and metaphysician, an intelligent man in other words yet Stoker makes him come across as a bumbling idiot much given to malapropisms and clumsy phrases. Maybe this is an attempt to emphasise his foreign origin (he is from Amsterdam) but it was difficult to keep a straight face sometimes when he was in a scene.

This reminds me of a couple of other ‘classics’ that I’ve found a challenge. Both happen to be by the same author.

5.  Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens I think I’ve now tried to read this about five times but have yet to finish it. The odd thing is that I come to a halt at almost the same place each time – shortly after we begin the chapters set in Paris. There is one chapter which has an elderly shoemaker who is going to be rescued and taken to home to England and to safety. I can’t put my finger on why I struggle to get beyond this point but my husband also hits the same brick wall.

6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  This novel has an outstanding opening which Dickens uses to criticise the English legal system and the way one of its divisions, the Chancery Court ruins people’s lives. He uses the symbolism of heavy fog which persists in London and particularly around the court which is sitting in judgement on a long-running case of wardship and inheritance – the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. This being Dickens its not long before he introduces us to a host of characters – and therin lies my problem. I cannot get these various people straight in my head which is disappointing because some of them are wonderful creations ( particularly one Lady Dedlock). I have reached the halfway mark but came to a halt – not that I have given up. I recently watched a BBC adaptation which proved invaluable in helping me work out who is who. I am determined to return to the fray with Mr Dickens at some point in the future.

It’s not just the classics that I’ve struggled with, sometimes I have an issue with bestsellers.

7. I usually enjoy Kate Atkinson‘s writing but her 2013 novel  Life After Life (my review) left me cold. The heart of the novel is a premise in the form of a question: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? The central character Ursula Todd is born, dies, is born again, dies again .. and again… and again. An interesting premise but it became repetitive and I wasn’t interested enough to want to know how it all turned out so I gave up.

8. All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one of those novels that ‘everyone’ seemed to be reading a few years ago. It tells the story of two teenagers during World War II (WWII), one a blind girl in Nazi-occupied France, the other a German orphan boy pressed into service by the Nazi army. A lot of reviewers and bloggers thought this was a page turner but I found the style of writing hard to digest. Virtually every noun had to come with an adjective, there were many anachronistic Americanisms and a heavy reliance on short sentences which had the effect of making the text feel very choppy.

And finally, I have a challenge with fiction from one particular country – Spain.

Infatuations9. The Infatuations by Javier Marías was a novel I was looking forward to reading on a holiday in Spain. He’s considered one of the country’s greatest contemporary writers and had come highly recommended by bloggers who know a thing or two about literature in translation. My experience was disappointing. For 180 pages (just a few pages shy of the book’s half way mark) we had barely any plot development yet oceans of digressive narrative and dialogue which traced the same argument over and over again. I abandoned it and went in search of a different Spanish author.

10  I landed on  Enrique Villa  Matas who is often described as one of the most inventive  of contemporary Spanish novelists. Dublinesque  had been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013.  It’s about a sixty year old recovering alcoholic whose publishing business has collapsed.  On the strength of a dream he hatches a plan to take three of his former authors on a pilgrimage to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce masterpiece Ulysses is set.  While there they will also commemorate the end of the Gutenberg era. One hundred pages into the book we were still nowhere near Dublin. Instead we had a lot of talking, a lot of reflecting and a mass of literary references, many of which I didn’t understand. It felt like a game was being played and I was not asked to be a member of the team. I abandoned the book. I’m still in search of a good Spanish author so if anyone has recommendations, do let me know.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

47 thoughts on “10 novels I wrestled with .. and sometimes failed

  • Very late here Karen. I had a hospitalised father in early September so missed this. Like some here I’ve really liked some of the books you list, including the Jacobsen and Bleak House. (I love Bleak House). Others on your list I haven’t read. My reading group did The famished road but I was away and didn’t manage to read it.

    There is one book though that I couldn’t finish – I still have it as I wonder whether it was just my mood at the time. It’s Orhan Pamuk’s My name is red. Ive read other books by him but I just couldn’t get into that one. I do sometimes wonder if, with some books anyhow, it’s timing.

    • I tried reading Snow by Pamuk and couldn’t get into it – felt like the author knew what was going on but I was being kept in the dark

      • I liked Snow a lot, but perhaps that’s because I came a bit prepared for his style !

  • I have to agree with Dickens. I pushed through Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, but I’ll be damned if I read another. I’m tempted to try and find a serialized version to read it how he wrote it, but I’m not that tempted.

    I was mostly shocked by Dracula and that’s what kept me reading. It felt so much more like a travel guide than a horror book I just kept reading to see when it would turn into one and disappointingly it didn’t!

    • I enjoyed Great Expectations and there are a few other by Dickens that I also liked. But he can be so verbose at times and is too enraptured by the theatre …

      • I think that’s putting it very kindly.

  • I didn’t enjoy Marias either. You’re the first blogger I see that share the sentiment.

    I also agree with you about the ridiculous ending of Frankenstein. I read it till the end but it cost me. I have the same reaction to Wuthering Heights.

  • I also gave up on Life After Life. I didn’t make it very far into the book before all the repetition was too much! A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite Dickens, so I hope you are able to give that one another chance sometime. Bleak House is on my TBR! And I actually did enjoy The Famished Road. I’m not big on magical realism, but there was something very interesting about the book and I really liked the ending. Not sure it’d be a book I’d ever re-read though.

    • It was the repetitive nature of Life after Life that bothered me too.

  • Hi Karen!

    I’ve read all the comments here mentioning Spanish authors but, seriously, whose opinion matters more here? Mine of course!! haha

    Well, I know what you’ve been through with Javier Marías: his books are all like this. There are no plot, just digressions about a theme he chooses for every book. The think is that you finish a book of his and you are astonished for you never thought one can go round and round a subject for so many pages, but it’s possible!
    So, he is not for anyone. He is a snob, by the way, and writes on a typewriter and thinks he is so smart because he studied and worked in England and we Spanish readers hate and love him at the same time.

    I can’t give an opinion on Vila-Matas becuase I have never read any of his books (though he is thought very good here).

    On the other hand, I agree with the others in recommending you Benito Pérez-Galdós. He is a classic, but his novels are wonderful. He portraits Spain very well, how we feel about ourselves, how we really are.

    “Confessions” by Jaume Cabré is also a very high rated book. I haven’t read it but I have a copy, so if you happen to read it, give me a shout out because I might start it with you 🙂

    I will also give a couple of recommendations of my own. First, Antonio Muñoz Molina. It’s a little like Javier Marías, but better, because he adds a really interesting plot mixed with a wonderful prose, and after you finish you think you will never read something that good again.

    I also love Almudena Grandes (she is one of my favourite authors). She writes a lot about the Spanish civil war, but she also have other kind of books (ask me for titles if you want). You’ll be astonished at the depth of her characters; I always find it hard to finish her books – in the sense that I don’t want them to be over.

    And I’ll finish telling you that I enjoyed Life after life – it was a little repetitive, I agree, but I saw that in every life Ursula got to know what was really important to safe.

    • Wow, this will surely help me find a Spanish author to enjoy. Thanks so much Isi for this detailed response.

  • It was too bad you didn’t like Life After Life… I read Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mystery series and liked the first two books (the first one is called Case Histories I think). I’ve heard a lot of people loving Life After Life and have been eyeing it for ages now.

  • OK, I hated The Finkler Question. However I really liked ‘Life After Life’, ‘All the Light We Cannot See’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and ‘Dublinesque’. I must admit that Enrique Vila-Matas is an acquired taste, but I really like his work. The others I have not read.
    A Spanish novelist I would recommend is Camilo Jose Cela whose works ‘The Family of Pasqual Duarte’ and ‘The Hive’ I both I highly recommend.

    • Just looked up The Family of Pasqual Duarte and it does sound appealing. Thanks for that recommendation ….Maybe I should give Vila-Matas another go.

  • I do love Bleak House but not the first time I read it. I found Esther completely nauseating. She’s so good! But after watching the BBC TV series in which she was played by Anna Maxwell Martin, an actor I love I went back to it and really enjoyed it.

    • The BBC adaptation has certainly helped me navigate the plot. It’s the young Jarndyce I can’t stand – so useless

  • buriedinprint

    The very passage you quoted from the Ben Okri novel was the one that made me purchase it. But it was the first novel that I had read by an African writer and I had a hard time with it; I could have done with an introduction or an entire course on it! Heheh However, I still love that beginning. Thank you for reminding me of it! And for making me giggle about how differently we responded to it!

    One of my reading projects from last year was to begin finishing books that I’d gotten stuck in, over the years, and it’s continued on (as I’d gotten stuck in a lot of them apparently). Not that I’m advocating this approach. In most cases, someone had wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommended the book to me, and I still felt like I wanted to understand why they loved it so much, so it meant something to me to return to those books and try again. In every case, it has turned out well for me in the end (at least, so far!), but as I said, I’m not suggesting this is the best plan of action. The idea that I’d left them unfinished bothered me, and that’s different; here, you have moved on to other more satisfying stories and itprobably would have bothered you more to have finished these!

    As reading time is finite, we must make thoughtful decisions, absolutely!

    • Funny how we react so differently to the same words. If I made goal of finishing my unfinished books I might end of resenting the time I spent with them. Earlier in the year I posted an article about a columnist who advised readers to read what they thought they would hate because that would make them better readers. That sounds an odd idea to me – why put yourself through misery

  • Get on Wikipedia and print out the cast of characters for Bleak House and give it another go. It’s wickedly funny, intense, sad, and interesting, but you’re right; there are a lot of characters. Mrs. Jellyby, a horrible human, was still my favorite. She campaigns to help little African children through ministry, yet her own children are barely clothed heathens. The irony is delicious.

    • |What a great idea – never thought about that but yes that would help enormously. I liked the Mrs Jellyby character too – totally neglecting her own children so she can spend the time improving the lot of other kids.

  • Interesting list, some of which I have actively loved – the Dickens for example. Bleak House I read back int he 1980s and thought it was epic, and I love Dracula too – found it very exciting. However, I total failed with The Infatuations too, and abandoned it like you did. I’ve never felt the need to go back to it!

    • I loved both Bleak House and Dracula myself. Both are darker than I thought older books could be.

    • Its not a surprise that you loved Dracula because you do enjoy sci fi (or at least the russian version) far more than I do so have more tolerance clearly for non-realism. I’m not going back to the Infatuations either

  • Thank you for your great post. It is seldom, but happens, that you cannot finish a bbok. Inhave also come to the conclusion that I give up if I do not really like it. There are so many good books to read.

    I did like some of the books you mention, like All the lights…, Dracula and Frankenstein. I am never able to finish Dickebs, although I did read A christmas… and Hard Times.

    I happened onto this Spanish author by chance and really loved the book, Habitaciones cerradas by Care Santos. You can read my review here,
    However, I read it in Swedish and am not sure wether it is translated into English.

    • Thanks for the name of the spanish author -it does seem there isn’t an English translation available unfortunately

    • Moby Dick I dont even plan to begin because I can’t summon up any enthusiasm for that much info about whales

  • Jenny

    An interesting post. I did read ‘The Famished Road’ soon after it was published – it was one of the first Booker winners I ever read – but I have never felt the need to go back and re-read it! Like you, I left ‘The Finkler Question’ part way through – after only 100 pages or so. I just couldn’t see the point of spending my time reading something that entirely failed to capture my imagination – even though I will concede that the writing is polished, concise, and witty. I have since tried to read another of Jacobson’s books, My Name is Shylock. Couldn’t get on with this one either, so I am afraid I have given up on this author.

    ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ was the first Dickens novel I read as an adult, and I suppose I chose it because it is short. I have to say that it made me wish to explore Dickens more closely. I don’t think it is a particularly good novel, but unlike you I found it quite readable. And I am definitely a fan of ‘Bleak House’. Perhaps I would have been less gripped by this book if I had not first seen the excellent 2005 BBC dramatisation.

    But ‘Life after Life’ is one of my favourite books, and the only one in recent years (apart from old favourites such as Jane Austen) that I have read for a second time. This and its sequel ‘A God in Ruins’ (which stands alone as a great novel) I think are Atkinsons finest achievements, and some truly great and imaginative writing.

    Isn’t it a good thing that we don’t all think alike?

    • couldnt agree with you more Jenny, there is little point ploughing through a book that doesn’t interest you. I shall have to give Tale of 2 Cities another go I suspect

  • Several all too familiar titles for me, here not least The Famished Road and The Finkler Question both of which I wanted to throw across the room. Not keen on Bleak House either the first time around – it was an A Level set text for me – but I’ve grown to love it.

    • I remember you also struggled with Finkler. I can see how Bleak House would be one that would turn off many seventeen year olds (our text was Wuthering Heights)

        • Absolutely – it did divide the class very much along gender lines though

  • inthemistandrain

    Good to read that you, like me, found Life After Life tedious and I, too, gave up on All The Light We Cannot See. I’ve given up buying books “of the moment”, if they’re still considered that good in a year or so I can read them then. Of course that theory that can’t apply to the likes of A Tale Of Two Cities!

    • Well I did actually finish All the Light though part of me wondered why. I’ve read hardly anything this year that was published in 2017 – too busy reading all the books I bought years ago

  • I second you on the the Finkler Question and I passed over Dublinesque so I may have been right on that one.

  • I love this list and can identify with your challenges. I forced myself to read A Tale Of Two Cities last year and I gave myself a timeline to finish it. It wasn’t the most interesting tale and some of the book, I am sure, went over my head but I finished it.
    I just bought a copy of Life After Life yesterday. I have heard good things about it and wanted to read it but I didn’t realize it was so long until I saw it at the library sale. I still bought it but I don’t know when I’ll read it.

    • Maybe the timeline approach would help where you have to finish the book (because its for a course as an example) or if its a book for review and you feel you owe it to the author to get to the end.

  • Oh. Oh my. You have included some of my favourite novels in this list.
    But it’s true, there are always novels that just don’t work for everyone, and the ones that work for everyone are called popular fiction and they’re mostly not worth reading.
    I’m reading a wonderful Spanish (Catalan) author at the moment, it’s called COnfessions and it’s by Jaume Cabre (with an accent on th ‘e’). But it’s very long, 750+ pages plus!

    • Sorry about that Lisa. Not sure I can cope with a 750 pager right now – but I’ll watch our for your review and then see if there is a shorter work by him

  • Congratulations on your honesty.

    I’m with you in Howard Jacobsen, however I loved Marias & the Vila-Matas book has to be one of my favourites from the last 10 years (maybe not making my top 10 but would definitely be in top 25). I think it depends what you’re after “Dublinesque” celebrating the written word (or lamenting its death) with the circular, labyrinthine references is my cup of tea.

    With your request for Spanish writers, do you want them from Spain or are you asking for Spanish language ones, therefore extending to a raft of amazing Latin American writers.

    • I want an author from Spain – I have a few LatAm authors to read already – so if you have some recommendations do let me know. I was disappointed not to like Marias or Vila-Matas more because I know they are so well regarded by some bloggers whose views I respect. It might be I just chose the wrong titles ..


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