Isabel Allende’s latest novel The Japanese Lover started as a pleasant enough read. Irina Bazili, a young girl from a poor background in communist Moldova, gets a job working at the kind of retirement home you hope exists in real life. The inhabitants are people who
… know what it means to carry winter on your back, to hesitate over every step, to confuse words you don’t hear properly, to have the impression that he rest of the world is going about in a great rush; the emptiness, frailty, fatigue and indifference toward everything.
But they chose to ignore these issues and to spend their final years taking part in the hubbub of life. At Lark House they reject the idea that fun consists of watching TV quiz shows or being dragooned into group sing-alongs. These residents are in San Francisco after all. They’re an odd mixture of left wing intellectuals, former hippies and second rate artists. So they get to act in their own productions, use alternative forms of healing, and indulge in marijuana on demand (though the centre’s strict no smoking policy means they can’t inhale indoors).
Irina’s calm manner and air of efficiency brings her to the notice of the home’s wealthiest resident, the semi-retired silk screen artist Alma Bolsacova. Working as Alma’s assistant, Irina becomes intrigued about Alma’s past and her long-standing love affair with the son of her family’s Japanese gardener. This is a love story that spans more than six decades. It moves back and forth in time to introduce a geographically and culturally diverse set of characters, tracing the obstacles put in the way of the lovers, first the internment of Japanese inhabitants after the attack on Pearl Harbour and then the opposition of her wealthy family.
Allende deals realistically with the hardships of aging. Lark House residents are sanguine about their dwindling faculties that will result in a gradual move from the ground of floor of the home to the fourth floor (named “Paradise”) But in relating Alma and Irina’s story, there is far too much telling going on rather than showing how each character reacts to events or how they feel. Allende also commits the – to me – unpardonable sin of including large chunks of background information gleaned from research with little attempt to make it feel a natural evolution of the narrative. We thus get three pages or so of the aftermath of Pearl Harbour and the decision of the American government to protect against a “yellow invasion” by confining all those of Japanese origin to interment camps in desert states. It reads almost like an extract from an encyclopedia. Frankly speaking, I found Allende’s narrative style rather uninspiring throughout the novel. It becomes in fact absurd at times It becomes absurd at times. Describing the process of writing a novel, for example, we learn: “The words sprang forth unaided with the fertile womb of the briefcase and strolled tranquilly through the panorama of the imagination.”
If “happiness writes white” then goodness is its paler cousin in this novel. Irina Bazili becomes indispensable to the residents of Lark House “thanks to her open, friendly attitude” and her determination to use her job as “the opportunity to give to others what she hadn’t been able to give to [her grandparents].” Everyone who comes into contact with her seems to fall under her spell. One elderly lothario leaves her a substantial legacy; the home’s volunteer doctor becomes her closest friend and Alma Bolsacova’s son falls in live with her. Irina’s qualities are not doubt admirable but she has far too high a dosage of the Pollyanna gene flowing through her veins to make me warm to her or to find her believable.
I can see how many fans of Isabel Allende might view The Japanese Lover as another very readable novel from this best selling author. I am certainly not one of them. I made it as far as the half way mark and then decided enough was enough.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende was published on November 5, 2015 by Simon and Schuster in the UK. My copy was provided courtesy of the publisher via Net Galley
It is not a good idea at 5am on a Sunday morning to begin browsing the Net Galley catalogue of titles available for review. Of course that only became apparent a few weeks later when the request approvals began coming through and I realised a) how many I had requested b) how much reading I would need to do between now and mid November.
I’m not complaining however. Having the ability to read books by authors I enjoy or to explore writers I’m not familiar with, is part of the pleasure of the Net Galley program. I don’t always get around to reading everything but if I do read the title, then I make sure to write a review. It seems a fair deal to me.
Awaiting me are the following:
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: this is one I’m not entirely sue about. I enjoyed her novel Year of Wonders which is about a village in the Peak District in England which seals itself off from the world to prevent the spread of the plague. I know she does extensive research into her chosen periods to ensure her novels sound authentic. It’s really that I don’t know whether the subject matter of The Secret Chord, the life of King David from humble shepherd to despotic king, is to my taste given I have little interest in religious history. But I could be pleasantly surprised and at least I will learn something in the process of reading.
Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan is a wild card choice for me. Kurniawan has been named as a rising star from Indonesia and compared (favourably) to Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. Her latest novel, set in an unnamed town near the Indian Ocean, tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families, and of Margio, an ordinary half-city, half-rural youngster who also happens to be half-man, half-supernatural female white tiger.
The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra
I must be one of the few people on the planet yet to read Khadra’s best selling Swallows of Kabul (ok, a bit of an exaggeration I know). I do have it in the bookshelves, just haven’t got around to it yet. The Dictator’s Last Night sounded too good to miss however. It’s focus is a figure whose name has long been associated with authoritarian political leadership and abuse of human rights: the former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. Khadra imagines the leader hiding out in his home town in the dying days of the Libyan civilc war. As he awaits a convey to take him and his advisors out of the danger zone, he reflects on his life, his animosity towards the West and the ingratitude of his fellow countrymen.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’brien: She may be in her 80s now but Edna O’Brien is giving no sign she’s ready to throw in the writing towel. When her memoir The Country Girl came out a few years ago there was much speculation it would be her last published work. She’s proved everyone wrong with The Little Red Chairs, a story of the consequences of a fatal attraction. A war criminal on the run from the Balkans settles in a small Irish community where he pretends to be a faith healer. The community fall under his spell but he proves to be fatally attractive to one local woman in particular.
Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano: How could I possibly resist a noir work from the Nobel Laureate? Especially given that atmospheric cover….
This novel begins with a nighttime accident on the streets of Paris. An unnamed narrator is hit by a car whose driver he vaguely recalls having met before and then experiences a series of mysterious events. They culminate with an envelope stuffed full of bank notes being stuffed into his hand. Libération called this book “perfect” while L’Express described it as “cloaked in darkness, but it is a novel that is turned toward the light.”
And finally I have The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende. It’s fair to say that I have not yet warmed to Allende. But she has a huge following and a friend keeps raving about her so I thought she deserved another chance. As the title suggests this is a romance. In it we see a young Polish girl meet in San Fransisco and fall in love with the Japanese man employed as the family’s gardner. Their relationship is tested when in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour, Japanese residents in the US are rounded up and sent to internment camps. Fast forward to modern day San Francisco and the secrets of a passion lasting seventy years are revealed.
Any of these books appeal to you? or maybe you’ve already read some of them?
When I asked some work colleagues in South America for recommendations on authors to represent Chile in my world literature project, the name most frequently mentioned was Isabel Allende. I duly bought The Infinite Plan, her fourth novel. It’s been lingering unread on the bookshelf for the last two years. The Spanish Literature Month readalong hosted by Winston’s Dad blog and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos, gave me the nudge I needed to actually open the pages.
It’s an ambitious novel that charts the progress to self awareness of Gregory Reeves. He’s the son of an itinerant preacher who claims that nothing in life is random but is governed by an infinite plan. It takes Gregory five decades to realize there is no plan; there is ‘just the strife of living’. Or maybe in his case it would be more apt to say the strife of surviving since Gregory is a man who seems to have more than his fair share of obstacles and calamities. As a child he is taken to live in a crowded Los Angeles barrio when his father is taken ill and is forced to abondon his ministry. As an outsider in a Latino world, he is a target for racial discrimination and sexual predatory behaviour. All that sustains Gregory is the friendship of of the Mexican Morales family, especially their daughter Carmen, and the caring love of an exotic midwife come fortune teller called Olga.
Gregory stumbles into two disastrous marraiges only to discover – far too late – that they resemble his mother, an ethereal figure who effectively separates from life in horror over the bombing of Hiroshimia. He’s an even more disastrous father. The only part of his adult life that seems to go well is his career as a wealthy lawyer, but even that turns out to have been built on rocky foundations.
This is a man who seems to court disaster. Instead of creating a character who evokes our sympathy, Allende’s narrative had the reverse effect for me with the exception of the hallucinatory effects Gregory suffers as an aftermath of his Vietnam war experience. I never felt drawn into his predicament so by the time we get to his breakdown and his redemption I was just wishing he would get the whole therapy and healing thing done with quickly.
There were moments when the writing was elegant and lyrical and I could glimpse the qualities that have made her such a well respected author. But one stylistic technique she employed proved irritating to an impossible degree. I don’t know what the correct terminology would be to describe this but the closest description I can get to is ‘foretelling’ or giving us some hints that the situation she is describing would change in the future. As an example, in the midst of a section explaining how Carmen developed a habit of wearing multicoloured ‘gypsy’ style clothes and began to gain success designing and making jewellrey the narrator suddenly breaks in with “but all this is in the future.”. I really couldn’t understand how this glimpse of the future added any value, in fact for me it became intensely irritating. I wanted to know more about the here and now, and wanted to let the story takes its course, not have all these hints dropped.
I also found the switch of narrative voices rather disconcerting. Most of the novel is told via a third party narrator but then would switch to first person narration from Gregory without any preamble. Not until the final pages do we learn that all the time he has been telling his life story to an unidentified person.
This could have been a great novel but the flaws were too many for me to class it as anything more than okay.
I do enjoy going to art exhibitions but still find them exhausting. Sometimes it’s because of the crowds which the big events always attract so you have to jostle to get anything like a decent view of the works. Sometimes though it’s just that there are too many items and it gets overwhelming. But, as was the case yesterday, my brain just gets overwhelmed trying to grasp the concepts behind the artist’s work. I read the explanation of Mondrian’s theory of neo plasticism three times but still have only a vague idea what he meant.
Aside from this short break, I’ve not had much time tor anything else recently including visiting blogs I follow and enjoy. The stack of books I have yet to review keeps creeping up too.
The good news however is that I’ve made some more progress with my world literature project. At the Hay Festival a few weeks ago I listened to a fabulous discussion with Atef Abu Saif, the editor of the first anthology of short stories by Palestinian authors. He spoke so movingly about the difficulties these authors face in getting their work published that I immediately went out and bought The Book of Gaza. Unusually for me I also read it over the next few days.
I’ve also been participatin in Spanish literature month which is co hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad blog http://winstonsdad.wordpress.com and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos. http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/spanish-lit-month-2014.
It’s given me the nudge I needed to dust off a copy of Isabel Allende’s The Infinite Plan which has lingered on my shelves for three years. I don’t dislike it and can see why so many other people love her work but it hasn’t wowed me.
As for my next read, I’m still trying to make my mind. I have a long trip to Asia starting at the end of this monotheism which will mean lots of flying hours so I need to chose a few good bookish companions. Robert Graves Goodbye to all That will be one since it’s the next book club choice but I keep changing my mind on what else to take. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters is one option. Anyone read it and if so would you recommend it?