The Colony – Audrey Magee

Audrey Magee’s The Colony came on my radar thanks as always to Book Twitter and also because of its inclusion on the 2022 Booker Prize longlist. It’s such a terrific novel, very deserving of the accolades being heaped upon it.

More than halfway through the book, Mr Lloyd, an Englishman and Mr Masson, a Frenchman, are typically engaged in another one of their combative conversations. Mr Masson, a linguist and a passionate supporter of endangered languages, resents the Englishman, fearing his unhealthy influence on the island’s residents, the unwelcome changes that will be felt not only in how they communicate but also in the way they think. Mr Lloyd, a painter, looking to revive his artistic career, has arrived on the island seeking solitude and introspection, some much needed inspiration for his art, but the Frenchman’s presence threatens to derail his plans. The two can’t stand each other and Masson, particularly, laments how Lloyd’s presence is slowly resulting in the island’s younger generation switching to speaking English rather than preserve their Irish roots. Lloyd, of course, does not see the problem in that; it is after all a matter of choice. And he, in turn, goads Masson, questioning the Frenchman’s hypocrisy – why does Masson wax so eloquently on Irish heritage and criticize England, when his own country France has colonized Algeria. So why isn’t Masson fighting to preserve Arabic culture in Algeria?

This is just one of the many ideas and exchanges that lace Audrey Magee’s The Colony, an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

A LAYERED STORY & VIBRANT CAST OF CHARACTERS

The Colony is set around the time of the Troubles, a very violent period for England and Ireland who were at loggerheads over the fate of Northern Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Carrying his easel and other painting paraphernalia, he enlists the help of two boatmen to ferry him across the waters to the island, even though he is fairly warned of how arduous the journey will be. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, complaining of certain aspects of the cottage rented not being to his requirements, but eventually settles down. Lloyd is explicitly told not sketch the island’s residents, but while he initially agrees, soon enough he breaks that rule.

After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and known to the islanders because he had stayed there in the prior years too for the purposes of his research. To Masson, an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence.

The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two.

We then come to the island’s residents themselves, four generations of a fisherman family residing there; a family which forms the cornerstone of Masson’s research.

The oldest is Bean Uí Fhloinn, the great grandmother, who is ancient in every sense of the word and speaks and understands only Irish, refusing to let outside influences sway her. She remains Masson’s favourite character, a sort of a symbol of her heritage, a potent bulwark against foreign influences. Masson assiduously records her talk on his tape-recorder, reveling in the unique inflections and patterns in her manner of speech. Her daughter, Bean Uí Néill, understands English but does not speak it and in that sense is closer in outlook to her mother. The next generation, Bean Uí Néill’s daughter Mairéad and Mairéad’s son James are a different kettle of fish (pun intended), more welcoming of the Englishman and his thinking. Lloyd’s influence is palpable in Mairéad and James; Mairéad begins to speak some English when she is with him, while James the truly bilingual one in the family, easily fluent in both English and Irish, sticks to speaking English around him. James is enamoured by Lloyd’s profession as an artist and aspires to be an artist himself ready to travel with Lloyd to London for an exhibition; he rebels against his family tradition of being a fisherman, not interested in the least to emulate his late father, uncle and grandfather – fishermen who drowned many years ago in a storm.

James seethes about being holed up on the island and while he performs his duties of catching rabbits for dinner, he shows no aptitude for training as a fisherman. Slowly but surely he begins to spend more and more time with Lloyd, entranced by his paintings, and even begins to dabble in art himself. James also dislikes Masson for the latter’s insistence on calling him by his Irish name Seamus, despite James vocally expressing his displeasure.

Mairéad grieves her husband who drowned along with her brother and father and begins wondering whether household chores are all she is destined to do and if there is life beyond the island. She sleeps with Masson, which everyone is aware of; and in an intense desire to venture into unchartered territory she also begins to secretly model for Lloyd during the day, a fact that she keeps to herself although suspicions are subsequently roused.

Last but not the least are Francis and Micheál…Francis is Mairéad’s brother-in-law and wishes to eventually marry her, he is conservative to the core and remains dubious of Lloyd’s intentions. While Micheál is the typical businessman who sniffing an opportunity, promises both Masson and Lloyd a quiet accommodation without informing beforehand of the other man’s presence, purely motivated by money.

The island seems cut-off from the mainland, but news from the north filters through to its inhabitants leading to fraught discussions. Alternating between the narratives on the island are short reportage-type paragraphs highlighting bombing and terrorist activities, as well as murder and killings rampant from both the Irish and the English side.  

THOUGHT-PROVOKING THEMES AND IDEAS

The Colony, then, is an allegorical tale; a rich, unique, multilayered novel on the complexities of colonization, the nuances associated with embracing global culture, evolution of society and what it means to preserve culture and heritage in an ever-changing world. It’s a meditation on language and identity and how the two are often interconnected.

The legacy of colonialism and its complications, particularly, forms the nucleus of the novel. Going back in history, European countries such as Britain, France, Netherlands, Spain and Portugal among others were notorious in amassing colonies in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries; they were rivals showing off not only their military strength but also the nations they ruled which were termed as “colonies”; countries they captured through the guise of trade and by taking advantage of their political weakness. Yes, there was progress made in infrastructure, healthcare and literacy, but one could not deny the loss of identity, widespread exploitation and constant conflict either.

In the book, the gradual death of Irish language and heritage and the emergence of English as a potent force is a topic explored through Masson’s dissertation as he observes the four generations of inhabitants on that remote island.  Often, history is an account of victories and conquests, the winners script the narrative, the vanquished are pushed to the margins, their stories obliterated. The same holds true for languages, why some die, others evolve and a few like the English language take centre-stage globally. As various nations seek progress, growth and rapid change in the quest for better opportunities and improved standards of living, the language that is widely accepted globally becomes the chief mode of communication, and in the tryst between English and Irish, the annals of history gave greater weight to the former.

The novel also explores the tug of war between the idea of embracing new cultures and expanding one’s outlook versus fiercely protecting one’s heritage and resisting change – James is the voice of the younger generation, ambitious, willing to experiment and seek better opportunities for himself rather than being tied down by tradition and the old way of life. His great grandmother is the complete opposite, preferring to preserve her roots, resisting change with an iron will and happy to be self-sufficient and exist within the confines of the island; content with her world however narrow it is and not at all interested in broadening her outlook. 

Masson, himself, is a complex character in this regard. He might hate the English for playing a major role in diminishing the worth of the Irish language and roots, but has somewhat of a complicated history himself as evinced from the series of flashbacks that offer glimpses into his childhood. Born to a French father and an Algerian mother, Masson’s mother takes great pains to educate her son in Arabic but Masson resists it with all his might as he identifies more with his French roots. Masson’s father is an uncouth soldier, and the mother finds herself increasingly isolated, yearning for a life of literature, culture and ideas. She finds solace in frequenting Arabic cafes with its atmosphere of intellectual discussions, and tries to project some of her hopes onto Masson but to no avail. Here’s Masson’s father inwardly lashing at the Algerians…

…indifferent to his status as a decorated soldier, indifferent when those men should be on their knees in gratitude to him for his service to the country, for risking his life against the savages in Algeria, those dirty nomads who emerged from the desert sands to demand independence from France when it was France that paved their streets, educated their children, built their towns, their town halls, their schools, hospitals, houses, supplied their water, their sanitation. All of it built by France.

The book also dwells on questions of what constitutes art, the professional but nebulous relationship between an artist and his pupil, what can be recorded and what can’t and how the views accordingly vary, and of course the process itself of creating art.

He drew waves pounding the rock, sea hammering the cliff, ocean crashing into the island. He drew water foaming and frothing, water splashing, water surging, page after page, none of it capturing the thundering roar of the Atlantic Ocean on its passage east from America, south-east from the Arctic Circle. How do you draw noise, Mr Lloyd? How do I paint the clangour of battle between ocean and land, sea and rock? The sounds reverberating against the stone, cracking the air? The raucousness of gulls? Of terns? I draw them open-beaked, but still they are silent.

UNIQUE WRITING STYLE

There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths. As the book progresses, often, we see shifts in perspectives in the middle of a paragraph reminiscent of Galgut’s writing particularly in The Promise. Through her crisp, spare writing style punctuated with bursts of poetic intensity, Magee brilliantly conveys a stream of ideas and brings out the intricacies of the themes she explores through myriad perspectives. The first quarter of the novel has a filmic feel to it particularly when we are inside Lloyd’s mind as he perceives his surroundings in terms of paintings he might be inspired to create.

They left the harbour, passing rocks blackened and washed smooth by waves, gulls resting on the stagnant surface, starting as they rowed past.

self-portrait: with gulls and rocks

self-portrait: with boatmen, gulls and rocks

TO CONCLUDE WITH SOME POINTS TO PONDER

In a nutshell, The Colony is a brilliant book, a worthy inclusion on the Booker Prize longlist, one that explores contentious issues – colonialism, violence, culture – that remain topics of intense debates even today. As an Indian, it forced me to think a bit about British colonial rule in India and its implications. While Indians have reaped benefits of being fluent in the English language and have emerged as a force to reckon with on the global centre-stage, the question still remains – would we have progressed had the British not ruled the country for over 200 years? Amartya Sen has penned a very insightful article in this regard for The Guardian. I’ll leave you with the following paragraphs from his piece…

“It is extremely hard to guess with any confidence what course the history of the Indian subcontinent would have taken had the British conquest not occurred. Would India have moved, like Japan, towards modernisation in an increasingly globalising world, or would it have remained resistant to change, like Afghanistan, or would it have hastened slowly, like Thailand?

“I was persuaded that Marx was basically right in his diagnosis of the need for some radical change in India, as its old order was crumbling as a result of not having been a part of the intellectual and economic globalisation that the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution had initiated across the world (along with, alas, colonialism).

There was arguably, however, a serious flaw in Marx’s thesis, in particular in his implicit presumption that the British conquest was the only window on the modern world that could have opened for India. What India needed at the time was more constructive globalisation, but that is not the same thing as imperialism. The distinction is important.”

I is Another (Septology III-V) – Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I is Another, the second book in the Septology trilogy, is a stunning meditation on art, God, alcohol and friendship.

Just like the two sections in The Other Name, the book opens with Asle staring at his latest work, a painting that depicts two lines intersecting in the middle with the paint dripping down the canvas.

As depicted in The Other Name, Asle has had a tiring couple of days. He had driven to Bjorgvin for groceries, came back home to drop them off, drove again on the same day to check on his namesake Asle who he finds drunk and unconscious on the street. An alcoholic, Namesake Asle is hospitalized and main Asle spends an anxious night at the hotel there, before returning home to Dyglja with the former’s dog Braggi.

I is Another picks up from where The Other Name ends. It’s nearing Christmas and Asle has to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery in Bjorgvin for the exhibition, an annual tradition adhered to just before Christmas. Thus, as a new day dawns, and despite how exhausted he is, Asle is all set to make yet another trip to Bjorgvin to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery and while there also check up on his namesake who is in the hospital in a terrible state.

This mundane, everyday present is juxtaposed against vivid forays into his past; memories that begin to provide some shape to Asle’s persona, particularly his childhood and developmental years as an artist, the beginning of some crucial friendships and his first meeting with his wife-to-be Ales. This flurry of flashbacks filter through his mind’s eye, when Asle drives to Bjorgvin in icy, cold weather, the snowflakes falling in heaps and bounds on the windshield of his car, and later when he is lying on the bench at home or staring out to the sea.

We first encounter a young Asle unhappy in school because he has no aptitude for mathematics or science. He does have a flair and passion for art (he wants to paint away the pictures in his head), and it’s his desire to eventually attend art school that keeps him going.

A short stint as a guitarist in a band goes awry when Asle realizes he lacks the talent to be a musician, and quits. Around that time he runs into Sigve for the first time, a slightly older boy, who has just been released from prison (he was arrested for arson and drunkenness) and an awkward friendship ensues.

Young Asle (with his black velvet jacket, brown satchel and scarf) is also unhappy at home feeling trapped by an overbearing mother and a mostly silent father who toils day and night building boats with little income to show for it. An opening into The Academic High School in Aga fills him with anticipation, a chance to get away from his parents and live independently even though the idea of school instills a sense of dread. But he has to attend High School if he wants to attend Art School he is told, so he steels himself for this new phase in his life.

When settling into his new quarters in Aga, Asle bumps into Sigve again, a friendship that resumes with the prospect of beer and talk even though Asle is an introvert and would prefer being left to his own devices. But Sigve mentions seeing another man at Stranda, a man also called Asle, the namesake, who bears a lot of resemblance to main Asle. Intrigued by this, main Asle agrees to accompany Sigve to Stranda if only to satisfy his curiosity and meet his namesake for the first time – the other Asle is also a painter but acutely short of cash compelling him to settle for coffee when he would rather have beer.

When in the past, we are also given a window into Asle’s budding artistic career – an exhibition organized by him to display his paintings leads to an introduction to Beyer, who will subsequently go on to become his biggest patron.

As the book progresses, Asle’s reclusive nature comes to the fore – in the present, his only friends are Asleik, a fisherman-farmer who without fail buys a painting every year from Asle to gift to his sister Guro, and Beyer who owns the Beyer Gallery. But this withdrawn demeanour is palpable even in his youth – Asle prefers to be absent on the day of his first ever showing at the Beyer Gallery, even when Beyer insists that it’s the best opportunity for him to meet prospective customers who have never experienced his art before.

Meanwhile, in the present, as Asle drives to Bjorgvin or even lies down home in front of the fire out of sheer tiredness, he ponders on the bigger questions of faith, religion, art and death. Faith is something Asle particularly struggles with fuelled by the sudden death of his young sister Alida. Unable to fathom how she died so young, Asle is deeply scarred by the incident. The priest’s eulogy at her funeral leaves him cold affirming his need to renounce Catholicism. And yet, he is converted and finds it in himself to believe again after his marriage to Ales, exemplified by the slew of rosaries she gifts to Asle on his birthdays.

As Asle sits on a chair in his home staring at a particular point on the waves of the Signe Sea, he muses on the nature of art and God, how both are inextricably bound together.

…a person comes from God and goes back to God, I think, for the body is conceived and born, it grows and declines, it dies and vanishes, but the spirit is a unity of body and soul, the way form and content are an invisible unity in a good picture, yes, there’s a spirit in the picture so to speak, yes, the same as in any work of art, in a good poem too, in a good piece of music, yes, there is a unity that’s the spirit in the work and it’s the spirit, the unity of body and soul, that rises up from the dead, yes, it’s the resurrection of the flesh, and it happens all the time…

…still I’ve found my place in The Church, I think, and seeing oneself as Catholic isn’t just a belief, it’s a way of being alive and being in the world, one that’s in a way like being an artist, since being a painter is also a way of living your life, a way of being in the world, and for me these two ways of being in the world go together well since they both create a kind of distance from the world, so to speak, and point towards something else, something that’s in the world, immanent, as they say, and that also points away from the world, something transcendent, as they say…

Asle is also beset by moments of doubt, fears and panic attacks. This tendency towards panic attacks is first pronounced during his high school years when the task of reading out aloud in class prompts the onset of terror, the onslaught of these sudden attacks continue well into adulthood. Moreover, self-doubts continue to linger over his calling as a painter – sometimes he wrestles with thoughts that his paintings are mediocre, at other times he realizes he has reached the pinnacle of his career, either way he feels he has a reached a point in his life where he wants to call it a day and paint no more.  

It’s also a precursor to how Asle gradually slides into excessive drinking, only stopping to comply with Ales’ wishes and because it interfered greatly with his painting. While the other Asle can’t bring himself to do so paving the way for the eventual breakdown of his personal life (in this book his painting career is yet to take off commercially but his hands are already full with responsibilities having to support his partner and their child), and the destruction of his body.

Similar to The Other Name, the striking feature of I is Another is Fosse’s highly original, melodious slow prose where the writing dances to a rhythmic flow, the sentences swell with musical cadences and there’s a dreamy, hallucinatory feel to the narrative that is utterly unique.

I think that the sea is always there to be seen, yes, I can see all the way out to the mouth of the fjord and the open sea, yes, I see the Sygne Sea and the islets and reefs out there, the holms and skerries, and the islands protecting the mouth of the fjord, and then I see the spaces between the islands where it opens out and you can see the ocean itself, yes, even if its dark or snowing hard or a heavy rain or there’s a fog I can see the water, the waves, the ocean and it’s impossible to understand…

There’s a wonderful depth to Asle’s personality – his formative years and how they influence his character and vocation, his loneliness, fears and anxieties, his fervor for art but the uncertainty of whether he has talent, his descent into alcoholism and a sort of a resurrection when he stops, then to finally reach a point where contemplates hanging up his boots.

I is Another, then, is an exquisite continuation of the Septology series, a hypnotic blend of the everyday with the existential, and I am looking forward to the final installment in this trilogy.

An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun was released with much fanfare recently, and I have duly procured a copy. Meanwhile, having loved the Booker winner The Remains of the Day, I felt like reading an earlier novel of his and picked up An Artist of the Floating World, which I agree, is another hit from his oeuvre.

An Artist of the Floating World is an unusual, wonderfully accomplished novel of a man looking back on his life and wondering if it was all worth it. It also takes a look at Japan’s widening generation gap and how individuals aiding efforts during World War II are shunned by subsequent generations who are more liberal and value progress, peace and prosperity.

The book opens with our protagonist Masuji Ono telling us about how he came into the possession of his current house at a bargain before the war – a sprawling mansion where he now resides with his younger daughter Noriko. While it’s a beautiful structure, it could not escape the ravages of war and certain sections of the abode have been damaged. The impact of war has insinuated itself in Masuji’s personal life as well, his wife of many years is now dead. He is left with his two daughters, now adults – the elder Setsuko is married with a son called Ichiro. The younger daughter Noriko stays with him in their mansion.

From the outset we are made aware of something unsavoury in Masuji’s past without the details. But there’s a growing sense that this past has made him a social pariah in the aftermath of the war because people are vary of associating themselves with him. It is certainly presented as a possible explanation for why Noriko remains unmarried. Noriko was all set to marry into the Miyake family, but all of a sudden that family pulled out without any explanation, and speculation is rife that it could possibly be attributed to Masuji’s prior misdeeds.

Masuji, meanwhile, is a talented artist who enjoyed his fair share of renown for the art he produced in his heydays, before the war changed things. A profession looked down upon his father, Masuji is determined to pursue art anyway and begins to work in a commercial Japanese firm, which is much more interested in the speed at which paintings are churned out rather than quality. His subsequent decision to train under the legendary Seiji Moriyama, however, takes Masuji’s painting skills to the next level. Moriyama is a teacher specializing in aesthetics depicting Japan’s sensual world of nightlife and courtesans in his paintings. And his fellow students are encouraged to experience the ‘floating world’ – the nocturnal realm of pleasure, entertainment and drink.

Masuji reminisces about his wonderful days in the pleasure district, the convivial atmosphere of those times, an environment which also served as a perfect backdrop to train his own protégés, notably the talented Kuroda.

But then at the height of his career, unwilling to devote his art solely to the celebration of physical beauty, Masuji makes a life changing decision of putting his work in the service of the imperialist movement that leads Japan into the Second World War.

“Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light.  It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world.  My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world.”

Masuji is forced to confront the fact that his war efforts do not carry any weight in the present. Some of his contemporaries, in a similar position, have chosen to atone for their sins by claiming their own lives. The younger generation’s attitude towards Masuji is revealed to us through his interactions with his son-in-law Suichi (Setsuko’s husband), a man who thinks that Japan’s participation in the war was sheer waste, and who believes in implementing the American ideals of democracy.

For indeed, a man who aspires to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than ordinary, surely deserves admiration, even if in the end he fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions.

This brings us to the nuances of Masuji’s character itself. Set between October 1948 and November 1949, the narrative is in the first person, it is Masuji who is telling us his story. In a meandering style laced with anecdotes, a mature Masuji takes a trip down memory lane that offers him both escape and redemption – his years as a student training for his craft, his formative years as an artist, his growing talent up until the war, to his present family life, and how he is beset by guilt, as he grapples with the consequences of his past actions. Masuji also dwells on his relationship with his disciples, particularly Kuroda – how that dynamic transforms from one of mutual admiration and respect to a point where Kuroda severs all ties with Masuji.

To the reader, the details of Masuji’s disgrace are only provided towards the end, so for the most part we are left wondering as to the exact nature of his downfall. Was Masuji involved in committing graver war crimes? Or were his actions, on closer inspection, not so bad and worth forgiving now? 

For his part, Masuji acknowledges his mistakes and is ready to assume full responsibility for them. In an extraordinary set-piece, which involves a formal meeting of him and Noriko with her prospective match – Taro and his parents – Masuji vocally apologizes for his role pre-war. To the reader, Masuji is a layered and complex creation evoking both sympathy for his present fate as well as some degree of unease and dread for his past dealings.

Ishiguro’s writing as ever is elegant, understated and restrained. There is a quietness and precision to his prose that is strangely alluring and pulls the reader into Masuji’s orbit. In many ways, Masuji is an unreliable narrator, for he alludes to how various conversations in his recollections may not have happened exactly the way he has put them forth, but which he justifies by saying that given the circumstances it could not have been much different.

An Artist of the Floating World, then, is also a depiction of Japan’s political landscape, how it transitioned from Imperialism to democracy and how a man having witnessed both the worlds is forced to alter his perceptions and viewpoints. At the very best, we can’t really change the past, but even if we venture to make amends for our wrongs, it can be construed as a step, however miniscule, towards progress.

Difficult Light – Tomás González (tr. Andrea Rosenberg)

Difficult Light by Colombian author Tomás González is a poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.  

Our narrator is David, a painter by profession, who is now residing alone in a village in his native Colombia since the death of his wife, Sara, a couple of years ago. David’s specialty is capturing light in his paintings, and he has earned some renown for his craft. However, in his old age, David’s eyesight is failing because of macular degeneration, and he is gradually turning blind. The forms and shapes he discerns appear fluid and liquid rather than distinct and concrete. Thus, forced to give up painting, David turns to writing instead and this book in a way is his attempt to record some of the most difficult moments in his past.

In brief we learn that David and Sara marry in their early twenties, and despite some initial hiccups, theirs is a healthy marriage, only strengthened as the years roll by. Along with their three sons – Jacobo, Pablo and Arturo – the couple, after a brief stint in Miami, eventually move to New York. Sara and the boys settle down quickly in the megapolis, she in her new position as a counselor in a hospital, and the boys in college. David finds it difficult initially to adapt to the city, the noise is too much and the space is cramped. But a move to a larger apartment with a lot of light streaming in does wonders and David begins to make some strides in his art. With things coasting along smoothly, those are some of the happiest times that he recalls. And then tragedy strikes.

An inkling of this is provided in the first chapter itself. Indeed, I had to read the last couple of lines twice to make sense of what is happening, was it a translation mistake?

“…until I was awakened at seven by the knot of grief in my belly at the death of my son Jacobo, which we’d scheduled for seven that night, Portland time, ten o’clock in new York.”

The background to this development is this – Jacobo is on his way home in a taxi, when an oncoming vehicle driven by a drunk junkie rams into it. The taxi driver emerges unscathed, but Jacob’s life is shattered. The accident leaves Jacobo paralyzed from the waist below. But the irony is that while his lower body is now useless, the pain completely engulfs him. So soul crushing and immense it is that he begins to wonder whether death is not a better option.

This particular development and its harrowing consequences form the bulk of the book. Jacobo and Pablo, who in many ways is Jacobo’s anchor now, travel to Portland to induce death enlisting the help of a doctor.

I enjoyed nearly two years of artistic plenitude, a happiness that also brought with it pangs of anguish: I was finding treasures everywhere, like someone for whom the stones in the road were suddenly gemstones. How could I have known what was coming! Misfortune is always like the wind: natural, unforeseeable, effortless…

We are also shown a window into David and Sara’s personalities – David is the silent, melancholy type, while Sara is more extroverted and warm and able to connect with people better. David and Sara are extremely supportive of Jacobo’s decision, and yet the impending death of their eldest son is a source of heartbreak as well. When the doctor postpones the procedure by a few hours, David and Sara are filled with hope that maybe the doctor might not arrive or that Jacobo might change his mind. This heightens the narrative tension of the story, as the reader, while aware that his death is inevitable, is still left wondering whether Jacobo might not go through with it after all.

Difficult Light, then, is an unblinking meditation on grief, loss and our capacity for pain as humans. At a fundamental level, it questions whether an individual has the right to end his life rather than live an undignified existence of unrelenting pain. David and Sara, in their ways, understand the unbearable ordeal his son has to endure on a daily basis, and yet the hell that Jacobo experiences is something that only he can fathom.

Interspersed with this central theme, are David’s reflections on his paintings and the light he is always trying to capture. David also wrestles with the notion of fame. He craves for it in his earlier years, only for it to be denied. It’s only after Jacobo’s accident that fame and money come knocking on his door, and the irony is not lost on David – now he wants to shun the limelight, but has to grudgingly accept that the money is crucial for Jacobo’s treatment.

What I also liked in the book is the portrayal of David’s family. On the day of Jacobo’s scheduled death, the family members and friends gather around in their house to show support – not by continuously doling out words of comfort, but by just being there. The palpable sense of tension and anxiety is punctuated by moments of talk and camaraderie as the family navigates the seemingly endless hours of waiting.

So many years have passed since then that even the pain in my heart has gradually dried up, like the moisture in a piece of fruit, and only rarely now am I suddenly shaken by the memory of what happened, as if it happened yesterday, and swallow hard to contain a sob. But it does still happen, and I nearly double over with grief. But at other times, I think of my son, and then I feel such warmth that in those moments it even seems to me that life is eternal, restful and eternal, and pain is an illusion.

González’s prose is crystal clear, limpid and sensitive whether he is describing the anguish of his characters, the debilitating impact of grief as well as the healing power of art especially the joy of nailing it right. When showcasing the family’s plight around Jacobo’s fate, González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a beautiful book that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”

A Wreath of Roses – Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. My first of hers was A Game of Hide and Seek, which I loved, followed by Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and The Soul of Kindness. The latter two books found a place on my best reads for 2019 and my list of 2020 favourites respectively. A Wreath of Roses, then, is another winner from her oeuvre.

A  Wreath of Roses is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality.

The ominous opening scene pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the novel. We meet Camilla Hill – possibly in her late thirties who holds a secretarial position in a girls’ school – on a railway platform waiting for the train. Camilla is on her way to the countryside to spend the summer with her two best friends – Liz and Liz’s former governess Frances – just like they always did in the previous summers.

It is a blistering, scorching day, the white buildings shimmer, and an air of lethargy descends upon Camilla. She notices another individual waiting on the same platform as her (later revealed to us as Richard Elton). But this is just the lull before the storm. Very soon, both of them witness a man climb the parapet above the tracks and jump in front of the oncoming train.

This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganized, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.

This sudden juxtaposition of suicide and death in an otherwise seemingly calm environment unnerves the reader as much as it instills a sense of unease in Camilla. To add fuel to the fire, more unwelcome surprises await Camilla.

On reaching their holiday cottage, Camilla notices a marked change in both Liz and Frances. In earlier years, their summers were always ripe and filled with shared confidences, literary jokes, painting, and going for long strolls. But this year, it all feels different. Liz has married a clergyman and is preoccupied with her baby. Frances is growing old and frail and has departed from her trademark style of painting – having switched from gentle portraits and bucolic landscapes to producing wild, terrifying abstract works of art.

She felt ashamed of her preoccupation with stillness, with her aerial flowers, her delicate colours, her femininity. She was tempted outside her range as an artist, and for the first time painted from an inner darkness, groping and undisciplined, as if in an act of relief from her own turmoil.

In terms of personalities, Camilla and Liz could not be more different. Liz is warm, vivacious, sweet-natured, and holds no grudge. Camilla is guarded and reserved, certain disappointments in her life have made her defensive, and she employs sarcasm as a shield to keep hurt at bay.

Into this picture, we are once again introduced to Richard Elton, the man Camilla travelled with on the train. Richard is a sinister character, full of secrets, a man not to be trusted. At first glance, Camilla dismisses Richard as a type of character she typically despises, an empty man ‘who could never have any part in her life, whose existence could not touch hers, which was thoughtful rather than active and counted its values in a different way.’

Yet, she finds herself dangerously attracted to him. Afflicted by a sharp bout of loneliness, and painfully aware that life is passing her by, Camilla begins to see Richard often against her better instincts. This is partly as a form of revenge against Liz because she believes the latter has abandoned her, and partly because she feels the urge to venture outside her comfort zone and plunge into excitement and adventure. After all, Liz and Frances have taken dramatic decisions regarding their lives, so why can’t she, Camilla, do something similar?

While the reader is already aware that Richard is a dangerous liar with an aura of threat about him, will Camilla eventually see through his façade, his odd behaviour sharpened by fear?

A Wreath of Roses is a novel of many themes. There’s mortality and Frances’ preoccupation with it. Having been independent all her life, Frances worries about old age and the state of dependence that it implies. Also, just when she is about to explore new territories in her painting style, health issues begin to mar her.

The novel also touches upon friendship and how a change in circumstances can considerably alter the dynamics between friends, in a way that they can no longer connect on a deeper level as they once did.

A Wreath of Roses is also an unflinching portrayal of deception and lies – not just told by others, but probing deeper into the lies we tell ourselves to justify our actions.

Taylor excels at visual imagery and the landscape is as much a character in the novel as the people in it. The village where the women are staying is a place of holiday and of menace, and throughout the novel these two states remain intertwined.

Adept in her depiction of big drama in small-scale settings, Elizabeth Taylor is truly perceptive, an excellent chronicler of human nature complete with sharp observations and keen insights. Throw in some dash of wit and humour, and what we have in our hands is a rich and textured novel.

This is one of her darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom.

We are eventually left to ponder – Can crossing the boundaries of our individual limits traumatize us forever? And can real friendship survive the myriad changes in character and upheavals in circumstances that make up life?

Just as A Wreath of Roses opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.