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Archive for October, 2012

I have wanted to read Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of Ending’ for a while, but I couldn’t get to it for one reason or another. Then the book club that I am a part of, decided to read the book for this month and so I finally got around to reading it. It is a slim book – my edition had 150 pages – and I read it in a day. Though I lingered on sentences, re-read passages and posted some of my favourite passages on Facebook, it still took me less than a day to finish. Here is what I think.

The story of ‘The Sense of an Ending’ is told by a narrator in his sixties who looks back on his life. The book starts with a set of images that the narrator remembers. (It is a fascinating exercise to find out where the images occur in the main story.) The story continues with the narrator remembering his friends in school and the arrival of a new boy called Adrian who befriends him and his friends. Adrian turns out to be different from the other friends in the group, but still they get along well. The story goes on about how the narrator grows up, falls in love with a girl called Veronica, the weekend he spends with his girlfriend’s family, and how things don’t work between him and his girlfriend later though the silver lining was that Veronica’s mother was kind to him. The narrator further describes how later Veronica and his friend Adrian get together and how he responds to that news. One day he receives news that Adrian has committed suicide and he and his other two friends are shocked and meet to discuss it. Then the story moves through the further decades of the narrator’s life. Later after he has retired, he gets a letter from a solicitor saying that Veronica’s mother has passed away and has left him a few things which includes a letter and Adrian’s diary. The narrator is puzzled and his mind goes back to the past and he thinks about Adrian’s death and he goes on a quest to find out the truth behind Adrian’s death and what Veronica’s mother’s connection is to this event.

 

‘The Sense of an Ending’ is about memory and reality and on how the memories we rely on to tell our story is essentially unreliable, making us all unreliable narrators. It is also about how commonplace a normal person’s life is – on how we all do the same things and go through similar stuff with some changes here and there. The story which the book tells is quite interesting, and has a surprising ending which is only implied and leads to different interpretations. (I could think of two different interpretations.) But I also feel that the book is not just about the plot. It is also a meditation on life, death, history, culture, memory, change. My favourite parts of the book were the ones where Barnes uses the narrator to comment on all these topics and more. Starting from the first page, where he talks about time :

 

“We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly : tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”

 

and the second page where he talks about memory :

 

I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty.

 

these beautiful and insightful sentences and passages keep on coming. My highlighting pen was working overtime when I reached the end of the book. At one point of time I randomly picked a page which I hadn’t read and I found a paragraph there which was quite insightful. That was how good the book was. The balance between the beautiful passages, the insightful thoughts and the plot was perfect. I enjoyed reading every word of the book. I also loved the understated humour throughout the book.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson : most people didn’t experience ‘the Sixties’ until the Seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the Sixties were still experiencing the Fifties – or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side. Which made things rather confusing.

 

I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more than ecstasy) would be in attendance. However…who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates’? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.

      But time…how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time…give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.

 

      How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

 

‘The question of accumulation,’ Adrian had written. You put money on a horse, it wins, and your winnings go on to the next horse in the next race, and so on. Your winnings accumulate. But do your losses? Not at the racetrack – there, you just lose your original stake. But in life? Perhaps here different rules apply. You bet on a relationship, it fails; you go on to the next relationship, it fails too; and maybe what you lose is not two simple minus sums but the multiple of what you staked. That’s what it feels like, anyway. Life isn’t just addition and subtraction. There’s also the accumulation, the multiplication, of loss, of failure.

 

You can find Andrew’s wonderful review of the book here and his interpretation of the ending here. Check out the comments sections in both the posts which have a fascinating discussion on the ending of the book. You can find Delia’s beautiful review of the book here.

 

‘The Sense of an Ending’ is one of my favourite reads of the year. I read Barnes’ ‘Nothing to be Frightened Of’ earlier this year and liked it, but I liked ‘The Sense of an Ending’ more. When it won the Booker prize, Barnes connoisseurs said that it was not his best work. If something which is not his work is this good, I can only imagine how his best work would be. I checked out his backlist and discovered that ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ has got a lot of raving reviews. I want to read that next. I am also intrigued by ‘Before She Met Me’ (because of the title) and ‘Talking it Over’ (because of the plot).

 

Have you read ‘The Sense of an Ending’? What do you think about it?

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It is interesting to sometimes ponder on how we choose a book to read. I had an interesting experience on this front recently. I was on the verge of finishing Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ sometime back. At that time, I thought on what book I would like to read next. The font using which ‘Neverwhere’ was printed made me think of another book I had with the same font. (In case you are interested in such things, this font was ‘Melior’. It is typically used in paperbacks published by Black Swan / Transworld. They publish books by Sophie Kinsella, Joanne Harris and Neil Gaiman among other writers.) The book that I picked out for further exploration which had ‘Melior’ font, was Joanne Harris’ ‘Gentlemen & Players’. I took out ‘Gentlemen & Players’ from the bookshelf and browsed through it and read the first chapter. Then I remembered another book which I had got at around the same time as ‘Gentlemen & Players’. I took that book out of the bookshelf. When I read the blurb on the back cover and the comments by different reviewers, I realized that I had to read this book now. That book was Hannibal : Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham.

 

So the sequence of events was this.

 

Got inspired by the font of current book -> Remembered another book which had the same font -> Remembered yet another book bought at the same time which made you nostalgic -> Picked up the new book, browsed it and loved what I saw  -> Selected the new book for reading.

 

This is the kind of random way I pick a book for reading. I don’t do this all the time, but I do it often enough and the results are always surprising.

 

I don’t know why I bought Hannibal all those years back. There was a time I used to read lots of books on history, but I don’t read a lot of historical novels (Novels which are set in the 20th century don’t count as historical novels from my perspective.) I have read Alexandre Dumas, Walter Scott and Kalki and the occasional murder mystery set with a historical backdrop, but otherwise I haven’t really read much historical fiction. So, I don’t even know why I got this. The only reason I can think of is that I remember reading somewhere that Hannibal crossed the Alps on an elephant and went to fight with the Romans and maybe I wanted to explore this more through this novel. It was nice that all the stars got aligned and by some random sequence of events the time to read this book finally arrived. It was a medium sized chunkster – 600+ pages – and I read it for the past many days. It wasn’t moving as fast as I wanted – I am scared of chunksters – and so I shut myself inside my room like a medieval monk during the past few days and finished reading it. Here is what I think.

Hannibal is set during the time of the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), a war which was fought between Rome and Carthage. This novel is a fictional rendering of that war. It starts with the events leading up to the war and why it started, goes into detail into the different battles which were fought and takes us through to the end of the war and a little bit of the aftermath. Most of the story is told from a Carthaginian perspective and so most of the time we sympathize with the Carthaginian point of view. Most of the important characters in the story are Carthaginian or fight on the Carthaginian side, except for some of the Roman consuls and senators. Though a majority of the story is about the war, one thing I liked about the book is that there are stories of minor characters which are told in reasonable detail. There is Imco Vaca, a soldier in the Carthaginian army, with whose story the books starts, and there is Aradna the Greek ragpicker who follows the Carthaginian army during its campaign and with whom Imco falls in love with, and with whose story the books ends. There is Masinissa, the Massylii prince and expert horseman and the story of his love for Sophonisba, the Carthaginian beauty and the sister of Hannibal. There is the story of Tusselo, the Massilyii, who was formerly a slave of a Roman merchant and who now joins the Carthaginian army and wants to fight with Rome so that he can forget his past and free himself of his former life. Then there is Silenus, the Greek scribe, who accompanies Hannibal during his campaign and who knows a lot of history and has a wicked sense of humour. Then there are the women in Hannibal’s family – his wife Imilce, his sister Sapanibal, his brother’s wife Bayala, his youngest sister Sophonisba, his mother Didobal. Then there is Mago, Hannibal’s brother, the soldier who is a poet and philosopher at heart. Somewhere at the beginning of the story, we see Mago thinking this :

 

He had always been disappointed by that aspect of the great tales. All that heroic grandeur resulted in rape and pillage and the utter destruction of a people.

 

Towards the end of the war, we find him thinking this :

 

The last few weeks, however – with the mask removed – the unacknowledged images bombarded him unhindered. He could not help but recall the faces of orphaned children, the suffering in the eyes of captured women, the sight of burning houses, the cold glances of people being robbed of grain and homes and indirectly, of their lives. He heard their wailing in some place beyond sound, high to the right and back of his head. Everywhere were signs of the barbarous nature of conflict, ugly to behold. Nowhere was it possible to avoid these things. It suddenly seemed to him, that such scenes were the full and true face of war. What place had nobility in this? Where was the joy of heroes?

 

It was difficult to not like Mago.

 

Though Hannibal and his campaign and his battles with the Roman army (and his crossing the Alps on an elephant J) rightly take up a major part of the book, my favourite parts of the book were about the minor characters – how they react to the onset of war, how they try to get on with their lives, the trials and tribulations they face, the dreams and nightmares they have, the brief glimpses of ephemeral happiness that brings joy to their hearts, the helplessness with which they are swept away by events over which they have no control. One of my favourite parts of the story is about the way women struggle with their lives after the onset of war – on how they have to make tough, impossible decisions and how they are used as pawns in a war which they didn’t start. When I read these parts, it made me angry and sad.

 

David Antony Durham has clearly done his homework before writing this book. I wanted to read more about some of the things that the book talks about and so I picked a book on ancient history (in case you are curious it is called ‘The Classical World : An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian’ by Robin Lane Fox. It is awesome) and read the chapters related to Carthage and Hannibal. I discovered that Durham’s book was pretty accurate with respect to historical facts, though he himself says in his book that it is only a novel. The only inconsistency I found was that though the actual Second Punic War lasted 16 years, the war as depicted in the book doesn’t last as long.

 

Durham’s prose is plain, simple and unadorned with no trace of ornamentation. The unkind might even call it pedestrian. Many of the scenes described in the book are violent scenes of battle. But in between all this plainness and mayhem, Durham manages to infuse the book with beautiful scenes. One of my favourites was this scene which describes a journey that Tusselo undertakes.

 

Nor was nature disposed to aid him. The sun burned daylong in unclouded skies. Shade was thin and hard to come by and the landscape filled with hulking shapes in the distance. Once he traveled a barren stretch of land cut by dry rivers, some of enormous girth that might have funnelled torrents but now lay parched beneath the summer sun. Later, he traversed a wide, shallow sea, the liquid so potent that it crystallized on his feet and coated them with a crust. Round him little thrived save for thin, delicately pink birds, creatures that stood on one leg and then the other and gestured with their curved beaks as if engaged in some courtly dance. On occasion his passage disturbed them, and the birds rose in great waves, thousands upon thousands of them, like giant sheets whipped by the breeze and lifted into the air. He never forgot the sight of them. Nor of the opal sea in the morning. Nor of a stretch of white beach as smooth as polished marble. Nor the white-winged butterfly that awoke him with a kiss upon his forehead.

 

Another of my favourite scenes – and probably my most favourite one – was this one. It is violent, tragic and beautiful.

 

      She was pretty. He could tell this despite her grimy face. Her chin was a little weak, one eye lower than the other, but she was pretty none the less. Her body was still boyish, but this was not a flaw. She was not too young to be taken, nor to be sold, nor to be rented out. He walked round her and stood behind her for some time. He had to think about this. He was aware as never before how much suffering this girl’s life now offered her. Her shoulders were so thin, but their frailty would please many. Her skin was a translucent covering over her frame. She must have been hungry these past months, but that too would make some men want her. Her hair fell over her shoulder and he could see the pulse of the artery in her neck. He reached out and touched it with his fingertips. The girl moved slightly, but he whispered her to stillness. Her pulse was strong, warm. It seemed irregular in its beating and at first he did not question why. Someone would profit from her suffering. Before the end of the month she would have been used by hundreds of men. She would be diseased and battered. She would rot from the inside out, both body and soul. But right now she was sound. In sorrow, yes. In mourning, surely. But her nightmare had not yet begun in full. He – by whatever divine hand – had been given her life to shape. Some men would have thought this a great gift, so why did it pain him so?

      Just after the question formed in his mind he realized why her pulse seemed strange. He snapped his fingers away from her neck and struck the same spot with a slicing sweep of his sword. She dropped from the stool, and he darted outside a moment later, striding away, putting the tiny house behind him. He would forever remember the moment when he realized that the girl’s irregular heartbeat was actually a mixture of his pulse and hers, both of them captured there on his fingertips for the few moments they were connected. He might have become a soldier in the last few years, but he was still a brother, still a child who loved his sisters, still soft in some portion of his heart He prayed that the girl might understand his action as he had meant it : as a twisted merciful gift.

 

Another of my favourite passages was this one (this is the last one, I promise) :

 

      Not yet ready to roll the papyrus away, he lifted it, absently, to his nose and inhaled. The scents were faint at first, reluctant and shy. The longer he breathed in, the more he found traces of fragrances beyond the papyrus’s dry flavour. Something of his mother’s fragrant oils came to him. Something of Carthaginian palms. A taste of sea air and of dust blown high and far-travelled on desert winds. And there was Imilce. Her scent was the last to come to him. When it finally revealed itself it was the most potent. It filled him with a longing so painful that he pulled himself forcibly from it. He threw the letter on the table and stared at it as if he expected it to rise and attack him. He had searched for her scent, but having found it he knew that such passions had no place in a commander’s chambers. They were more dangerous than Roman steel or cunning.

 

The story ends badly for most of the main characters. Only Publius Scipio, the Roman consul, comes out victorious at the end of the war. But he suffers personal losses – his father and uncle are killed in earlier battles. Some of my favourites survive though – Sapanibal gets together with the man she loves, Imago Messano, Imilce and her son survive and they get together with Hannibal in the end. The most interesting ending is to the story of Aradna and Imco. When an older companion asks Aradna what she wants out of life, she says

 

“Very little. I want to go home to Father’s island. I want to herd goats on the hills and watch boats pass at a distance. I want a quiet corner of the world away from all this. Every day I want a little less…Aunt, I just want peace.”

 

In the end this is what happens.

 

Aradna had many gifts to thank the goddesses for. She had escaped war. Scenes of death haunted her dreams, but they were no longer the fabric of every waking moment. She had found her way to the island she had known only by name, and on landing she discovered the remnants of her father’s family, an uncle who barely remembered his brother, several cousins, and a sister-in-law who – magically – welcomed her without question. Boys from the village laughed at the strange accent she spoke Greek with, but clearly they liked her company. They helped her build a hut of stone and clay, with a wood-framed roof of clay tiles. In a pen beside it she raised Persian fowl. She helped her reclaimed family harvest their olives and tend their pistachio trees and repair fishing nets for the village fleet. She helped an old man from the town raise edible dormice. This particularly gave her joy, for the squirrel-like creatures were shy and quiet, with trembling noses and bulbous black eyes and fur so soft she marvelled. True, they all eventually went into pots to fatten and were sold live at the weekly market, but still it was a gift to watch them born, to hold them in hairless infancy and see them grow. Nobody hungered to rob or rape her. Her small fortune was hardly even necessary, and yet was a comfort buried deep beneath the earth floor of her dwelling. She set her donkey loose to roam the nearby hills, though the creature never wandered from her. Was this not happiness?

 

That is not the end of it, though. She waits for Imco Vaca to come back, everyday, keeping an eye on the ships docking at the harbour. I don’t know how long she waited.

 

After reading the book, I wondered whether David Anthony Durham had a backlist. When I checked Wikipedia, I discovered that his first two novels are on African Americans in the 19th century, and his most recent three novels form a fantasy trilogy. Hannibal : Pride of Carthageseems to be an oddball in his writing resume.

 

I liked Hannibal : Pride of Carthage. I am glad that through a complex series of random fortunate events, the book jumped at me from my bookshelf and made me read it. It also made me want to read more on ancient history. If you like novels which are based on ancient history, you will love this book.

 

Have you read Hannibal : Pride of Carthage? What do you think about it?

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I borrowed Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ from one of my book club friends sometime back. I realized that I hadn’t read a ‘proper’ Gaiman book yet and so I thought I should start now. (I have read a graphic novel version of ‘Coraline’ but I don’t think that counts). I finished reading ‘Neverwhere’ during the weekend. Here is what I think.

Richard Mayhew lives in London. He works in a regular corporate job. He has a girlfriend who bosses him around. He spends his weekdays at work and his weekends with his girlfriend and other friends. One day when he is going for dinner with his girlfriend he sees a young woman jump out from inside a wall, which doesn’t have any opening, and fall down unconscious on the pavement. Richard tries to help her and ends up taking her to his apartment. The adventures start then. Richard discovers that this girl is from the shadow London which exists below the streets of London below the ground. There are strange people there, some good, some bad. There are all kinds of magic. There is even an angel. The girl whose name is Door is being chased by two villains who are trying to kill her. Door tells Richard that her family has been killed by the same villains and she wants to find who perpetrated this. Door and Richard go on a quest through shadow London to find the murderer. (I am summarizing here. The way it actually happens in the story is more complex and more interesting). They go through a series of adventures and meet interesting people along the way – Marquis de Carabas, Hunter, Lamia, Old Bailey, Mr.Croup, Mr.Vandemar, the angel Islington and many others. Whether Door is able to find the person who killed her family forms the rest of the story.

 

I always thought that Neil Gaiman books were dark. I was surprised to find that they were fast-paced and very humorous. ‘Neverwhere’ was a page-turner and I couldn’t put it down till I finished it. The humour in the book was wonderful and it made me laugh in many places. I also loved the literary and cultural references in the book. In one place at the end of a major adventure, the main characters are very tired and go to sleep. The next sentence reads ‘And then there were none’, in a clear reference to one of my favourite Christie novels. These references – literary, cultural, historical, scientific – add a lot to the enjoyment of the book. Another interesting thing about the story was that the shadow London is not very different from the real London – people there are as interesting, chaotic, complex, beautiful as real people. Towards the end of the story Richard has to decide whether he wants to be in shadow London or in real London and I was cheering for him to stay back in shadow London.

 

I did some research in Wikipedia to find out what are the other books that Gaiman has written so that I can read them. I discovered that though his comics output is huge, his novel output is slim. There was ‘Coraline’, ‘Stardust’, ‘American Gods’, ‘Anansi Boys’ and ‘The Graveyard Book’. And then there was his short story collection ‘Smokes and Mirrors’. And then a few odds and ends here and there. I thought that for someone who has been writing for more than twenty years, there would be a bigger bibliography. On the other hand, it is a good thing for new Gaiman readers like me. I can read all his books in a few weeks and wait for his next new one.

 

Have you read ‘Neverwhere’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Mansoura Ez Eldin through an interview of hers that I read in the newspaper. The interview was impressive and it looked like she was one of the new voices of Arabic / Egyptian literature. I haven’t read much of Arabic literature (I don’t think I have read any – shame on me!) and so I thought I will start with one of her works. I discovered that ‘Maryam’s Maze’ was her most famous work. So, I got it and I read it. It is a slim book – around a hundred pages – and I read it in one sitting. Here is what I think.

 

‘Maryam’s Maze’ is about Maryam who gets up one morning and discovers that she is living in a strange house. She tries to meet one of her friends and finds that her friend is missing. She has a date with her boyfriend but he doesn’t turn up. When she goes to his office, she discovers that there is no one with his name who works there. She goes back home (the strange house she woke up in) and looks at old newspaper cuttings she has, in which her boyfriend has written articles. She discovers that those articles are all missing. Maryam realizes suddenly that though she lives in the same city that she used to live earlier, she doesn’t know anyone there and all the people she knew had somehow disappeared. She is bewildered by this. At this point, we the readers are not sure whether this whole sequence of events actually happens or whether they are a part of Maryam’s dream.

 

After the first chapter, the story travels back and forth to the past and the present. We learn about Maryam’s family, her parents, the woman her father loves, her grandmother, her friends, her childhood. While we get a glimpse into Maryam’s past, the story also continues to tell us about Maryam’s quest for the truth about her present.

 

If I stand apart from the book and look at it from some distance, I can say that the book has two significant parts – a dreamy, surreal part which is set in the present and a concrete part which is set in the past. There are nine, unnumbered chapters. The chapters on the present and the past interleave with each other. The chapters on the past talk about history, life in Egypt, a little bit of politics. The chapters on the present are surrealistic, even avant garde and grab the reader’s attention with their unusual strangeness.

 

For me, the favourite part of the book was the third chapter. It is about Maryam’s parents, Yusif and Narges. It talks about Narges’ life when she marries Yusif, about how she learns to live as a newly married young woman, about how she is shocked when she discovers that her husband is in love with another woman at the same time, about how she manages the difficult time during her pregnancy and the aftermath. It is a beautiful chapter and it elevated the book to sublime heights. One of my favourite scenes in this chapter is when Narges discovers in the middle of the night that there are big ants crawling all over her and the reason that they are doing that is because her breasts are filled with milk. What does one do in this situation? She is upset, confused and mystified.

 

There are going to be some spoilers in the next paragraph, and so please be forewarned.

 

Another interesting chapter is the seventh which reveals part of the mystery – atleast I think it does. It has beautiful passages and wonderful thoughts and insights. I couldn’t get most of the mystery though. (I am one of those guys who had to see ‘The Sixth Sense’ more than once to find out the truth about Bruce Willis’ character.) This chapter seems to suggest that there is the real Maryam and there is the spirit of Maryam which is an independent entity, which shadows her. In his note at the end of the book, the translator Paul Starkey describes this as ‘the idea of the qarin or qarina, or ‘spirit companion,’ a concept found in the Qur’an but which undoubtedly has its origins in pre-Islamic times.’ There are also a few scenes which remind one of ‘The Sixth Sense’ – Maryam tries to talk to people or touch them but they don’t seem to be aware of her presence. It all made me feel puzzled – was Maryam dead and was this her ghost? Or is this all a dream? Or is it her spirit, her qarina, which is telling the story, while Maryam is actually sleeping comfortably at home? There is one surprise which is revealed towards the end, but I couldn’t fathom the central mystery even after the last page. This is the kind of book that will lead to a fascinating book club discussion.

 

It is surprising how much we can enjoy a book, inspite of not being able to understand how the central mystery is resolved. I would have been disappointed with ‘Maryam’s Maze’ if I had read it when I was younger. However, now, I loved it. Each sentence in the book is beautifully constructed, there are beautiful thoughts and ideas, the prose is exquisite. I can imagine how it might have read in the original Arabic – it must be an absolute pleasure to read. Another thing which I found quite interesting about the book was this. It would have been easy for Mansoura Ez Eldin, as a woman writer from an Arab country, to take potshots at the patriarchal establishment and portray her country in not-so-good light. International readers would have lapped it up. But she hasn’t done that. She hasn’t taken the easy way out. She has written a book where each sentence is beautifully sculpted and where the whole story is a work of art. I admire her for that. (Of course, this is my own opinion. A more informed reader might see underlying subtext in the story.)

 

I loved ‘Maryam’s Maze’. It is a beautiful, slim gem. I want to read other works of Mansoura Ez Eldin now.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

She began to count her losses, which had piled up during the years of her marriage. She had known that marriage would make her lose herself, but had nonetheless immersed herself in it totally. She had abandoned her dreams of completing a master’s thesis in English literature on William Blake, and occupied herself with the intricacies of El Tagi’s family. Only now did she return, like a soldier who had rushed into horrendous battles, only to suddenly discover that the victories had not been credited to him, but rather to his commander.

 

Yusif knew better than anyone that Narges was in love with herself…in love with the young girl of eighteen she had been. She would have liked herself and her experience to have stood still at that age, with her personality at the time. For this reason, despite her love for Yusif, she had never wanted to be totally in love with him, or to immerse herself in him totally. She always looked at him as a person trying to steal from her the girl she had been and whom she still loved.

 

Death seemed to Narges terrifying and inhuman, but despite that, she wanted to die young and without getting ill. She didn’t want to see any more evidence of the body’s betrayal. She never wanted to witness it collapse, waste away, or turn into something resembling a corpse, quite remote from the beloved if frightening body that she had lived in and grown used to.

 

When Maryam looked at her, the other woman wondered whether her eyes saw the world exactly as Maryam did. Did people in general, she wondered, see things around them in the same way as others? What if there were very slight differences from one person to another, which when added together might lead to alarming results, as alarming as the chasm that separated their world from hers? Was it sight that defined everything? They existed because she could see them, while she did not exist because she was outside their field of vision.

 

A stranger knows the cities better than those born there. He remembers their features, and is familiar with every inch of their streets. His feet cling to the asphalt when he walks over it. He does not expect the city to cast him out far away where there is no one and nothing. The stranger tries harder to belong to the city than those who are native to it, for they have no need to prove anything, but walk on in a neutral way, paying no attention to the finer details of their city, looking at strangers with an almost vulgar politeness that springs from their sense of its great superiority.

 

Have you read Mansoura Ez Eldin’s ‘Maryam’s Maze’? What do you think about it? What do you think happened to Maryam in the story?

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After reading Tabitha Suzuma’s ‘A Note of Madness’ I couldn’t resist reading the sequel ‘A Voice in the Distance’. I read a few pages a couple of days back and yesterday I finished the whole book. It is not often that I read a whole book in a day. Here is what I think.

 

‘A Voice in the Distance’ continues the story of ‘A Note of Madness’. Flynn, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, manages to stay normal by medication and periodic medical checkups. Jennah and Flynn now live together and are very much in love. Flynn wins music competitions and he is a star even before he has passed out of music college. Then one day the medication stops working as well as before. Flynn gets into a manic depressive state. He tries to commit suicide. He is taken to hospital. The doctor increases the dosage of lithium. Flynn discovers that it makes his hands shiver, which means that he can’t play the piano as well as before. Then one day Flynn decides not to take the medication. It improves his piano playing. But he starts getting hyperactive as before. And then Jennah discovers what Flynn has done and she feels betrayed and all hell breaks loose. Will Flynn be able to manage his condition without taking medication? Will he be able to salvage his relationship with Jennah? Will Jennah continue to be together with Flynn inspite of the everyday difficulties and complexities that come with it? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.

 

‘A Voice in the Distance’ is a bit different from ‘A Note of Madness’. The first thing that is different is that it is told through the voices of Flynn and Jennah. The chapters which contain Jennah’s narration are longer than those that contain Flynn’s. Jennah gets a bigger share of the story. The second thing that is different is that while ‘A Note of Madness’ was more about depression, ‘A Voice in the Distance’ is more about how the family and friends and loved ones of a person suffering from depression cope with the situation. We see how Jennah handles the situation and how she has to make difficult choices. We also see the situation from the point of view of Flynn’s parents, his brother and sister-in-law, his friends Harry and Kate and Jennah’s mother.

 

The third thing in which ‘A Voice in the Distance’ is different from its predecessor is with respect to the ending. The ending is sad, even heartbreaking. But it is also satisfying. I know that is a contradiction in terms, but it is true. It is classic Suzuma. In contrast, ‘A Note of Madness’ had a happy ending.

 

I don’t know whether there will be a third volume in the series. I would love to know what happened to Flynn and Jennah after the events described in ‘A Voice in the Distance’. The last passage of the book continues to haunt me, and as a reader I should leave it at that, but I can’t resist the temptation to find out what happened next.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

They say depression is an incredible sadness, an unbearable mental pain. No, it doesn’t have to be so dramatic. Sometimes it is nothing more than feeling tired. Tired of life. In therapy they tell you to remember that the bad spells pass. That things do get better, that medication does work, that things don’t stay the same. I can’t see how this is supposed to help. Ultimately everything ends with death. What they should say is : things might get better for a while, but eventually you will go back to being nothing, and all the pain and suffering will have been in vain. I wonder what Dr.Stefan would have to say to that. They say that depression makes you see everything in a negative light. I disagree. It makes you see things for what they are. It makes you take off the fucking rose-tinted glasses and look around and see the world as it really is – cruel, harsh and unfair. It makes you see people in their true colours – stupid, shallow and self-absorbed. All that ridiculous optimism, all that carpe diem and life’s-what-you-make-of-it. Words, just empty words in an attempt to give meaning to an existence that is both doomed and futile.

 

His face is like a waxwork, and I realize suddenly with startling clarity that the body and the person are two different things. Two different entities, somehow fused. The body is the one I am looking at now, attached to all these machines, the heart still struggling to pump, the lungs still struggling to breathe, valiantly fighting to stay alive. The person is another being entirely, the perpetrator of this crime, the one who ruthlessly swallowed forty tablets sometime in the middle of the night, then lay down beside his girlfriend to die. The person tried to kill itself, tried to kill its own body. I understand for the first time why attempted suicide used to be an imprisonable offence. It is, after all, attempted murder.

 

Have you read ‘A Voice in the Distance’? What do you think about it?

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I read Tabitha Suzuma’s ‘Forbidden’ last year. I liked it so much that I wanted to explore other works of hers. Whenever I discover a new writer and like one of her/his works, I try to read the first book of that writer. So I thought I will get Tabitha Suzuma’s first book, ‘A Note of Madness’. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

 

‘A Note of Madness’ is about a classical music student, Flynn. Flynn discovers one day that his emotional state moves to sudden extremes. One day he feels very energetic. He goes for a midnight run. He doesn’t sleep for the next few days and tries to compose an opera. Then suddenly the bubble bursts and he doesn’t want to even get out of home. He doesn’t want to attend classes and he doesn’t want to talk to anyone. He feels depressed all the time. Flynn’s best friends are Harry and Jennah. Flynn loves Jennah, secretly. But he is scared that Jennah won’t love him back the same way and so doesn’t reveal his true feelings to her. Jennah loves Flynn. But she waits for him to make the first move. Flynn’s episodes of high energy and high depression continue for a while and one day, on the eve of an important recital, things become too much and he tries to jump out of the window. Flynn’s brother Rami, who is a doctor, takes him to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnoses Flynn with bipolar disorder and prescribes lithium to him. Flynn starts taking medication but discovers that the medicine deadens his mind – he doesn’t feel depressed but he doesn’t feel excited too. It looks like he is incapable of both agony and ecstasy and the medicine has eliminated both the lows and highs of life. He feels dull all the time and after attending classes he prefers sitting at home and watching TV. One day he stops taking lithium. Sometime after that Jennah tries expressing her love to Flynn, but he pushes her away without meaning too. And things get worse from there. Does Flynn get cured of his bipolar disorder or does he learn how to manage it? Does his music career get back on track? Is he able to convey his true feelings to Jennah and does she accept him? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

 

‘A Note of Madness’ is a study in depression. It shows what happens when a talented young person suddenly faces the onslaught of manic depression and how his life changes irrevocably. It is one of the most realistic stories on depression that I have read. The main character in the story, Flynn, reminded me of the character Leonard in Jeffrey Eugenides’ ‘The Marriage Plot’. However, I found the portrayal of Flynn more convincing and real. After reading the story, I also discovered the difference between clinical depression and manic depression. One of my favourite passages which describes how Flynn thinks about the situation he is in, is this :

 

I feel as if someone close to me has died, or as if I’ve suffered some terrible loss. Yet nothing bad has happened and there is no reason for me to feel this way. A few days ago I believed I could write an opera, I was a musical genius and playing was effortless fun. I loved my friends, I loved my life. But now, just existing is pure agony and all I want is escape. Escape from this world, escape from this life, escape from myself.

 

Another of my favourite passages is this :

 

Go Rami, he silently implored him. You can’t help me, nobody can. You’ll never understand. You have no idea what it is like to be inside my body, my brain, my mind! Trying to describe my life and feelings to you is like trying to describe colours to the blind, or music to the deaf. It’s simply not possible. We may exist side by side, we may share the same blood, the same upbringing, but our minds exist in different worlds. You exist in the world of the rational, the world where every problem has a logical solution, every question has an answer. Can’t you see that none of my problems have solutions, my questions can’t be answered? Nothing in my irrational brain can be solved by your common sense, none of my pain can be shared by your structured emotions? In my world black is white, one and one never makes two and agony and ecstasy lie irrevocably intertwined. The only way to understand it is to share it and I would never wish this existence upon anybody, not even my worst enemy. You may try and sympathize, help and care with all your soul, but you will never, never understand.

 

There are many beautiful passages on music in the book. My favourite music passage is this:

 

The piece was made up of drops of icy water melting from an overhanging tree. Each simple note caused a stab of bittersweet pain as it fell against his skin like a pebble into still water, sending shivers down his spine. Flynn felt as if he could taste each note, feel it inside him, and as the late-afternoon sunlight slanted over Professor Kaiser’s dusty study, it was almost too much to bear. He came to the end of the piece and immediately wanted to play it again, to experience again the intense sensations created by nothing more than a simple arrangement of notes, longing for the piece once more like fresh juice on a hot summer’s day. Each note was more poignant than the last, more exquisite, until you didn’t feel as if another could surpass it and then one did and it was utterly overwhelming, so much so that your chest ached and your eyes stung and your whole body felt as if it would burst.

 

I also liked the character of Jennah in the story. I wish her character was explored in more depth and the story of her and Flynn’s love for each other was given more space. But the book is more about depression and so the love story is just a subplot in it. I was however pleasantly surprised when I discovered that this book has a sequel ‘A Voice in the Distance’ which gives more importance to the character of Jennah. I can’t wait to read that.

 

I liked ‘A Note of Madness’ very much. It is a study of depression, of love, of fear, of brilliance. It is beautiful, brilliant, and scary. I can’t wait to read its sequel ‘A Voice in the Distance’ to find out what happened to Flynn and Jennah.

 

Have you read ‘A Note of Madness’? What do you think about it?

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