Wednesday 26 May 2021

Book Review: Leaving the Atocha Station by Adam Lerner

4* Probably the most compelling first person narrative I have read.

It is a rambling, uncertain, fictional (?) memoire of American student, Adam Gordon's time in Spain. He's drunk and /or drugged up for a lot of it, a poet supposedly writing but with no intention of completing the work required by his scholarship - his project is “a long, research-driven poem” exploring the legacy of the Spanish Civil War about which he knows nothing - instead he is hiding behind the supposed inadequacy of his Spanish as he negotiates friendships and lovers, translators of his poems, reading Tolstoy, Ashbery and Cerventes in a spaced out stupor. We are taken on a full-of-self-doubt, thoroughly engaging impressionistic drift through his time in Spain to the finale of a panel discussion on Literature Now and the launch of his poetry in translation pamphlet -

"was I in fact a conversationally fluent Spanish speaker and a real poet, whatever that meant? It was true that when I spoke to her (Teresa) in Spansh I was not translating, I was not thinking my thoughts in English first, but I was nevertheless outside the language I was speaking, building simple sentences with the blocks I had memorized, not communicating through a fluid medium. But why didn't I just suck it up, attend the panel and share my thoughts in my second lanagueg without irony? They wanted the input of a young American poet writing and reading abroad and wasn't that what I was, not just what I was pretending to be? Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent"

The writing is very engaging, oftimes funny. Clearly the author has a way with words and a little research showed me that he is in fact a published poet. The Audible audio version of this his first novel is well narrated by the author himself and I found it very good to listen to, helping me truly 'hear' the voice of his main character and get the book's humour.

Tuesday 4 May 2021

Book Review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This is an ambitious novel, a well crafted story about lives shattered by drug addiction, by depression and by dealing with people suffering from both these illnesses. At the same time, it is an author's homage to a friend and her work which she uses as the basis for her central character Gifty's research.

The big things in the life of Ghanian - American Gifty have been religion, family and science. She looses her family - her father back to Ghana, her brother's life to opiods, her mothers to subsquent depression; she looses her faith along the way but finds it again; her science always seeming to be the questioner, the doubting Thomas, and yet the embodiment of all her hope.

The novel's structure is complex, lots of flashbacks, a hotchpotch or the past and the present, of reality and her internalisation of it, her constant quest for answers to questions which are often in themselves questions, all rendered in the first person. And therein lies my dilemna as a reader because I can see her achievements in this as a writer, but also its flaws for me as a reader.

For me, all the internalisation of her thoughts, the detail of the science and the education system in which the character grows up in the southern state of the US where evolution is not because of fundamentalist religious beliefs and the Pentacostal Ghanian church's repetivitive evangelicism made it an oppressive read. When she is describing the Ghanian pastor and all his shouts of "Amen?" to his loud and responsive Hallelujahs of his congregation, and having witnessed this myself in a Nigerian church, I am reminded of the United Free Church in Scotland where I once saw a vicar with equal fervour condem fire and brimstone from a pulpit to an equally deafing but totally silent congregation, likewise bowed in conformity. Perhaps readers of a more spiritual disposition will not be so impacted by this and see the novel very differently.

Whilst I felt the character of Gifty, but I also felt the book only came alive when she spoke about her brother, to a lesser extent her mother, with the other minor characters of Raymond, Anne, Katherine and Han only serving to fill out, round off her life story.

I would have loved to have given this book a 4 for ambition but alas for this reader some parts of it didn't come off 100%, so it is a 3 for a read.