I have been very, very late in putting up my July reading post for various reasons. It was not a great month in terms of quantity of books read, I barely managed three. But that’s also because I was occupied by family stuff which affected my concentration quite a bit. However, all the three books were great, so definitely a good month quality-wise. Without further ado, here is a look at the books…
THE PROMISE – Damon Galgut
The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts.
One of the key themes explored in The Promise is racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era. We are also shown how South Africa’s economic progress has paved the way for unchecked greed and rampant corruption.
But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye, which takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards. I hope the book goes on to win the Booker Prize.
THREE SUMMERS – Margerita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)
Bursting with vibrant imagery of a sun-soaked Greece, Three Summers is a sensual tale that explores the lives and loves of three sisters who are close and yet apart given their different, distinctive personalities.
First published in 1946, the novel’s original Greek title when literally translated means The Straw Hats. Indeed, like the first brushstrokes in a painting, the first image presented to us is of the three sisters wearing their newly bought straw hats – Maria, the eldest, wears a hat adorned with cherries, Infanta has one with forget-me-nots perched on her head, while the youngest and also the book’s narrator – Katerina – has donned a hat with poppies “as red as fire.”
Gradually as the novel unfurls, the varied personas of the three sisters are revealed to us – the sexually bold Maria, the beautiful and distant Infanta, the imaginative and rebellious Katerina, also the narrator of the story.
Three Summers, then, is a lush, vivid coming-of-age story that coasts along at a slow, languid pace…it drenches the reader with a feeling of warmth and nostalgia despite moments of piercing darkness. With its rich evocation of summer and luscious descriptions of nature, the narration, in keeping with Katerina’s personality and penchant for telling stories, has a dreamy, filmic, fairytale-like vibe to it.
THE LIGHT YEARS (VOL. 1 OF THE CAZALET CHRONICLES) – Elizabeth Jane Howard
The Light Years is a wonderful, absorbing, sprawling family saga set in England just a few months before the advent of the Second World War. It is a novel teeming with characters providing a panoramic view of the various members of the Cazalet family over a course of two summers spent in the Sussex countryside.
William Cazalet and his wife Kitty (known as Duchy to their children and grandchildren) own a country estate in Sussex called Home Place where their unmarried daughter, as well as their three sons and respective families gather every summer to spend the holidays. Their eldest son Hugh had fought and been wounded in the First World War and the scars of that traumatic experience haven’t entirely healed. His wife Sybil is expecting their third child – the first two offspring are Polly and Simon, both in their teens. Hugh and Sybil love each other and have a successful marriage although there is a sense that both in their desire to please the other don’t really express their true feelings.
The middle son Edward, handsome and insouciant, is married to Viola (Villy) and the couple has three children – Louise, Teddy and Lydia (Louise and Teddy are close in age to Polly and Simon). Prior to her marriage, Villy was a dancer with a Russian ballet company but gives up her dancing career once she marries Edward. With not much to occupy her mind, Villy is beset with a feeling of emptiness and existential angst. Edward, meanwhile, continues to have extra-marital affairs of which Villy remains in the dark.
The youngest son Rupert is a painter compelled to hold a regular teaching job to support his family. Rupert has two children – Clary (in the same age group as Louise and Polly) and Neville. With the death of his first wife Isobel when Neville is born, Rupert subsequently remarries. When the book opens, Rupert has only recently wed Zoe who is much younger to him. Rupert and Zoe behave like a young couple in love but Zoe enjoys the finer things in life and is prone to throwing tantrums when things don’t go her way. Rupert is always on the edge trying to please her. To complicate matters, Zoe does not care for motherhood and has a fraught relationship with Clary. Rupert, meanwhile, laments at not having his space to paint…his day job and family affairs take up most of his time not leaving any room to pursue his vocation and passion.
Along with their father, Hugh and Edward are heavily involved in the family business (a company selling timber), Rupert is not yet part of it. Financially, Hugh and Edward are comparatively well-off, while Rupert struggles to meet expenses, particularly, Zoe’s extravagant tastes.
Then there’s Rachel Cazalet, the only sister among the three brothers, and unmarried. Rachel is in love with her woman friend Sid. But while both the women are crazy about each other, their backgrounds and personas throw up many obstacles. Rachel is deeply devoted to her family often thwarting her chance of happiness with Sid. And Sid, whose origins are humble, refuses to accept any favours from Rachel and her family out of pride.
The children, meanwhile, are absorbed in their own world, made up of picnics, games, friendship, fears, anxieties, and trying to get a grip on the bewildering realm of adults.
At more than 500 pages, Elizabeth Jane Howard, has ample scope to let the characters breathe and develop at a languid pace with the result that each of them has a distinctive personality. Also, to make things easier, the beginning of the book displays the Cazalet family tree as well as a list of the primary characters.
Reading The Light Years was an immersive experience – it’s an evocative read with the feel of a family soap on TV but without all the trappings of a melodrama. Composed entirely of a wide range of set-pieces, it’s like opening a photograph album that provides a glimpse into its vast array of people and their unique, complex stories. Led by finely etched characters, Howard’s writing is sensitive, nuanced and graceful, and she is adept at infusing psychological depth into this compelling saga along with keen insights into human nature.
Observing the Cazalets enjoying their annual summer holiday is akin to settling in with them for a nice, comfort read. The sumptuous country meals are tastefully described and I came across food items I had not heard of before – Charlotte Russe cake and angels on horseback, particularly, come to mind.
But despite the convivial holiday atmosphere, the threat of disruption and their lives being upended hangs like a Damocles Sword over the Cazalets. The novel is set in 1937 when Hitler had started capturing territories but Britain was not sure whether the political environment then could escalate into a full-blown war. Of course, as readers we know otherwise, but the Cazalet family remains on the edge and gripped by mounting uncertainty especially in the second half of the novel. Against this broader landscape, what makes this novel so interesting is the rich, layered interior lives of the family members, many of whom are either battling their own demons or have dark secrets to hide…all of this is gradually revealed to the reader as the novel progresses.
In a nutshell, with its domestic themes and a cast of fully realized characters, The Light Years is a brilliant read, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Can’t wait to begin the second installment of the series – Marking Time.
That’s it for July. August is Women in Translation Month and I am currently in the midst of reading A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo and An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, both excellent so far.