House of Names – Colm Tóibín

House of NamesThe story:

Agamemnon, believing he is acting out the wishes of the gods, sacrifices his eldest daughter for success on the battlefield on the eve of her wedding day. His wife, Clytemnestra, cannot forgive such a betrayal, and silently seething, plots his downfall. Her actions force her down a dark path and her choices have far-reaching consequences for her, her remaining children and their kingdom.

My thoughts…

This is a retelling of a classic Greek tragedy, full of scheming, revenge and murder. I must admit that I haven’t read the original text. While I’d heard of a couple of the key players, I didn’t know the story, so have nothing to directly compare this to.

As events unfold, all of the characters find themselves stuck in a cycle that seems impossible to break. With each crime committed or action taken, there’s another character waiting in the wings to demand payback or retribution.

Although this is set in ancient Greece, there are themes running through this book that are entirely relatable to the present day – such as Clytemnestra’s loss of faith, her grief and her feelings of abandonment by a higher power after a tragic loss. Revenge and the idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ also still resonates. Although the actions of Clytemnestra and those around her are extreme and melodramatic, the motivations behind them are understandable in the context, if not forgivable.

Despite the high emotions that the characters must feel, the writing style feels quite distant and detached. Clytemnestra is the only one that I felt any real attachment too. Her emotions shine through and I wish we’d had more from her point of view. Her actions reverberate through the palace, affecting everyone around her. This includes her daughter Electra, who brims with silent fury. Electra eventually becomes what she despises – another example of how without change, everything comes round in a circle and no progress is made.

Orestes was an interesting character. He’s continually being pushed in various directions by other characters, such as Leander and Electra, but never fully included. His sense of isolation is echoed in the rest of the novel – everyone has their own secrets and motivations and they’re not willing to share them. The result is a general feeling of mistrust and suspicion, summing up the pervading overall feel of this book.

In conclusion?

While I didn’t dislike this book, I can’t say that it really provoked any strong emotions in me either way. It was quite an interesting read though, and I did enjoy learning more about the Greek myths.

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

The miniaturistThe story:
Nella Oortman moves to Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of successful merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But when she arrives, Johannes is absent while his sharp-tongued sister Marin rules the house with an iron fist. Johannes presents Nella with a miniature version of her new home as a wedding gift, which she proceeds to fill with tiny replicas of objects and people – created by a mysterious miniaturist who seems to know far too much about inner workings of the Brant household. It soon becomes clear to Nella that the house has many secrets. Determined to get to the bottom of things, she uncovers far more than she expected and sets off a dangerous chain of events.

My thoughts:
I know that there are a lot of people who absolutely loved this book, but while I enjoyed the story and thought it was well written, I just didn’t connect with the characters. To me, it felt like I was being told, rather than shown, how the characters felt about unfolding events. As a result it all felt a bit detached, and I never felt any real emotion on their behalf.

The interactions between Nella, her husband and the other members of the household seemed limited and stilted – so much so that I really didn’t believe in the relationships that developed between over the course of the book either.

The story started well and I was intrigued by the situation and the mysterious miniaturist. The middle part meandered on quite slowly, and while it did pick up towards the end I just wasn’t that interested in the outcome. The story line about the miniaturist feels unfinished and isn’t fully explained, which was frustrating and left me feeling like I was missing something.

That said, I really liked the setting of seventeenth century Amsterdam, the descriptions of the city and the historical insight into Nella’s daily life. It was really interesting to get a glimpse of the difficulties faced by women and by anyone else who didn’t fit into the strict rules of society, and how this impacted on their lives and experiences.

This feels like a short review but I just didn’t really have any strong feelings about this book either way, which in itself is a bit of a disappointment given all the hype that surrounded it on its release.

Roopa Farooki’s ‘The Good Children’

the good childrenRoopa Farooki’s ‘The Good Children’ focuses on the lives of the Suddeq family in Lahore, the Punjab.

From birth, the Suddeq children – Sully, Jakie, Mae and Lana – are pushed into set roles determined by their gender and by social expectations. The boys will study, go abroad for education and return as successful doctors. The girls will be dutiful daughters, marry well and help to keep the family in the highest social standing.

But their mother’s determination to force them into these ideals of ‘good children’ forces a wedge between her and her children. All four grow up to rebel and push the boundaries in their own way – Sully marries outside of his religion and Jakie falls in love with a white Irishman, while the girls leave their husbands and raise their children with Western values.

Despite scattering to all corners of the globe to escape their mother’s grasp over their lives, their childhood in the Punjab profoundly affects all four of the children. As they build their lives in new surroundings and carve their own path away from family and cultural expectations, they all struggle to some extent with feelings of enduring guilt or resentment. Many years later, they are drawn back to their childhood home and forced to come to terms with their upbringing and the choices they’ve made since. Continue reading

‘Motherland’ by Jo McMillan

MotherlandGrowing up as the only child of the only communist in the Midlands town of Tamworth, Jess has felt like she’s ‘different’ all her life. When her mother, Eleanor, gets the opportunity to spend time in East Germany over the summers, her and Jess jump at the chance. Living in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), they begin to feel like they’ve found a place where they finally fit in.

While in Tamworth, Eleanor was the butt of every joke, in East Germany she is valued and appreciated. When they meet Peter, a widower, and his daughter Martina through the party, it seems like the final pieces might be starting to fall into place. But it soon clear that the Party comes first, and personal relationships that don’t meet with approval from the top are forced to come second.

Jess is the main character – we see through her eyes and are heavily influenced by her views. Despite this, the character that I emphasised the most with was Eleanor. She clearly has incredibly strong beliefs and a tireless commitment to a cause that she believes in completely – even when she’s spit on, ground down and disappointed. Her steadfast commitment to her values doesn’t even waver when her chance at true love is whisked away by the party. I admire her for sticking to her convictions through thick and thin, but can’t help but think that she’s choosing a life that doesn’t necessarily lead to her being very happy. Continue reading

‘A Place called Winter’ by Patrick Gale

a place called winterWhen Patrick Gale’s latest novel opens, protagonist Harry Cane is incarcerated in a mental asylum. As we read on, we find out more about his life and how he ended up there.

Born as raised in England as the eldest son of a wealthy businessman, Harry lives a relatively idle life. Shy and with a stammer that embarrasses him, he enters into a happy but platonic marriage. When he enters into an illicit, passionate affair, he starts to discover more about himself and his sexuality.

When he’s inevitably discovered, he’s forced to leave his family behind under the threat of scandal and imprisonment. Harry emigrates to Canada, where he’s allocated a remote homestead in a place called Winter. It’s a harsh environment, and to succeed in his new life Harry has to learn a whole new set of skills – building a home from scratch and clearing his land for farming.

On his travels he meets Troels, a dangerous and sadistic man who makes a living from exploiting the many homesteaders that fail in their efforts to start afresh in the Canadian prairies. His relationship with Troels is dark, twisted and unsettling, and his negative influence pervades the whole book, even after Harry forms a new bond with his neighbour, Paul, and his sister, Petra. Eventually, this troubled relationship forces Harry to make a terrible decision.

Harry at the beginning of the novel is shy, withdrawn and has no real purpose in life. He drifts aimlessly, whiling his days away as best he can. His marriage and its breakdown, plus the irrevocable spilt with the only family he has, shakes him to the core – but it also wipes the slate clean in a sense. After his enforced new start in Canada, he discovers the value of working for himself, a sense of achievement and real love and friendship for the first time. Continue reading

Jane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’

some luckSome Luck follows the lives of Walter and Rosanna Langdon, year by year from 1920 to 1953. From a young couple starting their lives on a farm in Iowa, the book follows their family as it grows and expands, following them across the country and beyond as they find love, go to war, discover new things about themselves and have children of their own.

All of this is set against the backdrop of wider global issues taking place at the time, placing this one fictional family firmly in the middle of some of the most important events of America’s twentieth century – from the Great Depression to the prohibition to the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War.

Walter and Rosanna are a typical Midwest rural farming couple, and they raise a family in the hope that their children will go out into the world and choose their own paths. They sacrifice everything they have to keep their family going – enduring drought, falling prices and poverty to make sure that there’s food on their table and that their children never go without an education. Continue reading

Iona Grey’s ‘Letters to the Lost’

Letters to the lostIn wartime Britain, American airman Dan Rosinski falls in love with the newly – but unhappily – married Stella Thorne. Against their better judgement, they embark on a passionate affair. But the odds are stacked against them. Dan risks his life every day and Stella is trapped under the weight of social conventions, and their relationship is soon tested to its limits.

Many years later, a young girl is hiding out in an abandoned house on the run from an abusive partner – ill, broke and with no plans for the future. But when Jess opens a letter addressed to an ‘S. Thorne’, she’s immediately drawn into a love story that spans over half a century.

Now ninety years old and living in the USA, Dan is determined to find the girl that he fell in love with all those years ago. As Jess reads through a box of old letters she finds in the house, she becomes determined to help him to find an ending to his story. Continue reading