tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

His obtuseness is ignorance. His arrogance is ignorance. He is ignorant of us; we of him. He is infinitely a stranger, and I a fool, to let my shadow cross the light of hope he brings us.

This was my birthday present from Barry and he chose brilliantly (I suppose he ought to have a pretty good idea of my tastes after nearly ten years). The Left Hand of Darkness deserves its designation as a science fiction masterwork: it is is also an unconsummated love story, a profound meditation on gender, a tale of political intrigue and a thrilling piece of polar adventure/survival fiction all rolled into one. The action is set on the distant planet of Winter (Gethen in the parlance of its natives) a world like Earth but with two major differences: the planet is still in the grips on an ice age and its humanoid inhabitants are all of one gender. Gethenians are capable of both mothering and fathering offspring, adopting the necessary sexual characteristics to do this only when they come into heat or "kemmer." The rest of the time they are without distinguishing sexual characteristics or drives. The book tells of the coming of the Earth man, Genly Ai, an envoy for the Ekumen, an organization of more than eighty worlds, who hopes to persuade Gethen to join. The story of his mission and his observations of the alien Gethenians is interspersed with chapters telling tales from the planet's history and mythology.

I think Ai's profound sense of isolation - alienation in it's most literal sense - is shared by the reader in the earliest chapters. Le Guin's world-building is so dense and detailed that the book seems quite hard to follow, but it's absolutely worth persevering: soon, like Ai, I found myself feeling more at ease with the alien words and terms, and by the second half of the novel I was absolutely hooked. Gethenian biology of course allows Le Guin the opportunity to air some profound meditations on gender. It is significant that there is no organised warfare on the planet, the lack of sexual competition removes this militarising urge - although the Gethenians find plenty of less organised ways to kill each other. Le Guin's aliens remind us that we all should be people first, men and women second. It is an important lesson and the reason this book is regarded as a feminist classic. However, what I enjoyed most in The Left Hand of Darkness wasn't its anthropological musings so much as just the sheer gripping excitement of its final section which chronicles a gruelling quest for survival as Ai and his one true Gethenian friend undertake an epic journey across a glacier in the depths of the planet's darkest months. I love polar survival fiction anyway, Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys (about Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition) is one of my all time favourite novels. But Le Guin gives the genre a further twist, as all the challenges of the elements and the scarcity of food brings Ai and his companion much closer together, beginning to forge and understanding and trust despite the gaping chasm of their biological, social and cultural differences. It's an incredibly moving account and one that will stay with me for a long time to come.

tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

Ben Jonson said of his dead child, my sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy. We too easily take what the poets write as figures of speech, as pretty images, as strings of bon mots. Sometimes perhaps they speak the truth.

I like a bit of Margaret Drabble, her novels are always subtle, wise and thought-provoking. This one was no exception. It was also a very fitting read to follow up Esther Waters as the plot is actually very similar: a young, unmarried woman finds herself pregnant after her only sexual encounter and decides to keep the baby, finding tremendous joy and fulfilment in her new role as a mother, despite the disapproval of wider society. The difference is that while Esther lives in nineteenth-century London, Drabble's Rosamund is living in the capital during the swinging sixties and the book throws into sharp relief the problems of a time when casual sex is becoming de rigeur but illegitimacy remains very strongly taboo. The overall message of this book is strongly feminist: motherhood and independence need not be mutually exclusive. It is a qualified message however since like many of the women in Drabble's other books, Rosamund is an academic of upper middle-class origins, a career and background that gives her more possibility of financial independence than many other women in her position, and Rosamund herself recognises that were she from a poorer background many of the options she chooses would simply not have been available to her. While the novel seems to praise the academic life as a valuable avenue of self-sufficiency and independence for women, at the same time, Drabble is quick to remind us that it is Rosamund's intellectual leanings that have kept her shielded from many of the harsher practicalities of life, an otherworldliness which led to her getting pregnant in the first place.

Although in places I felt the prose becoming less like a novel and more like a slightly dry sociology essay, overall this is sensitively written book gives a wonderfully rich snapshot of life among the more privileged classes in 1960s London and paints a generally warm and hopeful - though not too unrealistic - message about the power of unconditional maternal love.

The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones

Tokyo was more than Lucy could have hoped for. Too big ever to be found there, too noisy to have to listen to anything, too expensive to worry about saving any money. And under the chaos, a cool and quietly beating heart. An organ that pumped blood through stooping centenarians, three-year-old Nintendo whizz-kids, office workers with no time for meals or sleep, and university students with all the time in the world

This has the subtitle "a novel of mystery" and it was a very engaging thriller indeed. I was captivated right from the opening page which begins by detailing the arrest of Lucy Fly, a thirty-something British girl living and working in Tokyo. Lucy is the chief suspect in what seems to be a grisly murder case and, while she refuses to cooperate and talk to her interrogators, the narrative delves into her memories and explores the time leading up to her arrest, uncovering the many dark secrets that haunt Lucy's waking and subconscious state. Since Lucy does not talk to the detectives, and her past is revealed only to the reader only as a series of flashbacks, it is up to us to penetrate her icy detachment and ascertain the full level of her involvement in the murder, as well as trying to understand why she has severed all ties with her family in Yorkshire to forge a new life on the other side of the world. I found this narrative technique really succeeded in keeping me glued to every page and I finished the book in just a day.

As well as working as a chilling psychological thriller, The Earthquake Bird is a wonderful piece of travel writing which paints a vivid portrait of bustling Tokyo in all its sacredness and profanity (all of which just adds further fuel to my dream of visiting the city myself). Yet although the novel is brimming with engagingly quirky details of Japanese culture, its overall theme is absolutely universal. Above all, this book is a study of the corrosive power of jealousy which can emerge from nowhere with fatal consequences. I highly recommend this excellent debut novel.


tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)

September 2010

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