Wednesday 27 July 2011

The Night of the Mi'raj by Zoë Ferraris

In the Saudi Arabian desert, a body of a young girl is found, after a search of nearly two weeks. The rich and influential family have some words with the authorities, and the death is quickly declared an accident.

But of course, that is not the whole story in Night of the Mi'raj (later retitled 'Finding Nouf'). The tracker they've asked to help them find the girl is now secretly tasked with finding out what happened. He's a Palestinian, devout, a single man, and conservative / obsessed with modesty. Now he's looking into the circumstances around the tragic, possibly violent death of a teenage girl...

It's a compelling backdrop to a crime drama. Inspired by inspector Columbo (our hero, too, soon finds himself wearing a trenchcoat and questioning people who have things to hide), and working together with a woman working in a forensics laboratory, he slowly reveals layer upon layer of mystery.

This is not a thriller: there is not much of a sense of threat around the story developments. Instead, it is a murder mystery in the most classical sense. It took me a while to adjust to this - perhaps I am too used to cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, and heroes being chased, conspiracies, dark shadows around every corner. Once I adjusted to the more sedate pace, this was a compelling read. I'd bought it because I wanted to get a sense of Saudi Arabia, and I feel that I did get a glimpse - told in functional, but undecorated prose. It was not quite as atmospheric as I had hoped.

So, if you like TV murder mysteries like "Murder she wrote" or "Diagnosis: Murder", or Agatha Christie novels, and you want to combine that sort of plot with a bit of cultural sightseeing into countries you might never visit, and attitudes that you might find quite alien, then this is an excellent book for you. Personally, I would have preferred a bit more tension, a bit more of a sense of urgency, and perhaps more of a presence for the religious police, but I found the book pretty good.

Rating: 4/5

(Addendum: this book turned out to be the start of a series which improved massively with each subsequent book: the second one is very good, the third is superb.)

Sunday 24 July 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

Our narrator's grandfather is dead. She's en route to an orphanage, about to vaccinate the children, when she finds out. It's an orphanage across the border, in the Other Country - the one that Her Country has fought a war with. And she continues her journey, reminiscing about her grandfather, and stories, family stories, local myths...

The Tiger's Wife moves from one story to another - one moment, we're reading about her grandfather's encounter with the deathless man, the next it's the story of the zoo during The War, or the tiger (there are several tigers in the novel), or the bearhunter...

We're never quite sure which former Yugoslavian country we're in, but it does not seem to matter much. Stories are stories.

There are many things to like - and perhaps even love - about this book. It has a talent for including fairy-tale-like stories in a normal narrative. Many of the characters get a tale that sounds a bit like a fairy tale. Compared to movies, this is probably closest to Amelie, or Life Is Beautiful, or A Very Long Engagement in tone. (In book terms, I suspect Salman Rushdie is the closest writer I have read).

Some of the above are movies and stories I love, and yet, I did not feel the same way about this book. Don't get me wrong: I really enjoyed many parts. If any of the characters had said "Life is like a box of chocolates", I would have nodded, and thought, yes, in this book, it is. But that's also what is wrong with the story, for me. This is a book about a war-ravaged region, about great tragedies, angry mobs, violence, and some truly horrific events. And yet, it is coated in an aesthetic that is a bit romantic, nostalgic and bittersweet. I find bittersweet a difficult flavour to enjoy, especially when it comes to the great disasters and human capacity to bring about tragedy. This book makes war look cute, not gritty. It gives forced marriages and wife beating a kind of golden, nostalgic glow...

Basically, it feels like violence and war, the HDR photograph, scored by Yann Tiersen.

I don't quite feel this is appropriate.

Some people will argue that being able to laugh and poke fun at something is a part of growing pains, of gaining distance and perspective on it. I can't argue with that. Sometimes, it works (Tales From The Golden Age is a Romanian movie that does more or less that to Ceaucescu's reign). In this particular case, it did not work for me.

Some notes about reading this book: I read it whenever I had time, for whatever amount of time I had. Which means I did not read it chapter by chapter. This was a mistake. The story moves from character to character, never sticking with a narrative for very long, and is only held together by fairly thin framing. Often I would find myself trying to remember who I was reading about, and why, and what their role was. It can be quite a bewildering reading experience.

Another thing that I found a bit awkward is that I kept waiting for a resolution, some answers... well, this was not forthcoming. Or maybe I just did not find the resolution fitting for the story.

All in all, it is a book with some lovely stories, some lovely moments, a lot of sweetener applied to some horrible stories and bitter moments. Well written (albeit without ever justifying its sometimes omniscient narrative voice, which also jumps from one first person narrator to another), but not altogether a great book. Too sweet for its subject matter for me, and a bit too helter skelter.

Rating: 3/5