Happy Australian Financial New Year! On this monumental day, we have reviews of the two books I’ve been enjoying over the last two weeks or so!
37. Ann-Marie MacDonald – Fall On Your Knees (26 June)
I don’t remember when I got my copy, but I think I purchased it after hearing about it on Oprah’s Book Club over a decade ago. Anyway, I finally picked it up, and…wow.
Blurb: Following the curves of the twentieth century, Fall On Your Knees takes us from haunted Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia through the battlefields of World War I into the emerging jazz scene of New York City, and immerses us in the lives of four unforgettable sisters.
Plot: Amazing. The novel focuses on the one family, and so much happens that it never for a moment felt dull or lacking. Its execution is also amazing—I loved what MacDonald did with the structure and pacing, which are both a beautiful balance of telling an engaging story and keeping the audience in suspense about certain plot points. By the time I reached the final revelation, I was both blown away by its implications, and held in quiet awe and acceptance because everything just falls into place.
Characters: As the blurb indicates, the novel focuses on four sisters. And goodness me, does each sister have her own personality! I loved every of those four sisters as characters, even if I wasn’t particularly keen on one of them (Mercedes)—but even so, I understood why she is who she is, and I don’t begrudge the reasons and circumstances that led to her actions, even if I begrudge those actions themselves. That is a mark of amazing story-telling, which MacDonald clearly shows in abundance.
The non-sister/“supporting” characters are also well-developed and very real. MacDonald doesn’t waste a character—each serves his or her own purpose, and has some kind of impact on the sisters. My favourite supporting character would have to be the singing teacher in New York—he had such a strong presence, and I really identified with his reaction to finding such a talent in Kathleen.
And as for my favourite of the sisters? Frances. Goodness me, what a force!
Themes: Sisterhood, family, and the vital part religion plays in these people’s lives. These three themes are all thoroughly and intricately explored in a beautiful, flowing way.
But I want to say a few words about another thematic concern that I thought was so incredibly explored: the importance of music. Far out, this was so beautifully executed. The novel is ripe with singing and music-making, and as an amateur musician/music enthusiast, I was delighted by all the references. But more than that, I was very impressed with how MacDonald effortlessly and unobtrusively flung those musical threads into the narrative and her prose.
Language: I love MacDonald’s writing, and will happily read anything else of hers. Her language has such a rare balance of artistry and precision, and is an absolute delight (and terrifying and heart-wrenching at times) to read.
Overall: What a stunning, stunning book. I would be immensely happy and proud if I had written it—something to strive towards, it seems!
For those who like numbers: 5/5
38. Michael Cunningham – The Hours (1 July)
My copy has a “Book Off” sticker of ¥105, which means I must’ve picked it up at a Japanese second-hand bookshop in 2008. Yup, it feels great to be working through my piles of books!
Blurb: In 1920s London, Virginia Woolf is fighting against her rebellious spirit as she attempts to make a start on her new novel. A young wife and mother, broiling in a suburb of 1940s Los Angeles, yearns to escape and read her precious copy of Mrs Dalloway. And Clarissa Vaughan steps out of her smart Greenwich village apartment in 1990s New York to buy flowers for a party she is hosting for a dying friend.
Moving effortlessly across the decades and between England and America, this exquisite novel intertwines the stories of three unforgettable women.
Plot: I really enjoyed all the quiet, intimate revelations in this quiet, intimate book. Although I picked up the connection between “Mrs Dalloway” and Mrs Brown quite early on, the eventual ending was quite a surprise. I thought Cunningham did a really clever job of interweaving historical fiction (in the Mrs Woolf chapters) with fiction, and I found each narrative strand equally interesting.
Characters: I didn’t get a sense of these characters being distinct—rather, all three women, despite being of different times and circumstances, just felt like a single, continuous being, a sort of “Mrs Dalloway for all ages”. But despite this fluidity of characters, I really enjoyed the general sense (or essence) of these three women, and I could identify with their various mental and emotional struggles.
Themes: I’m sure a lot has been written about feminism, gender, and sexuality in The Hours, so I shan’t go into that. What I found particularly fascinating was the preoccupation with time—and, specifically, with the rounded hour. For these characters, happiness is a fleeting notion that, once lost, cannot be reclaimed. I loved this idea, and how Cunningham’s use of stream-of-consciousness makes these changes even more prominent.
Language: I thought the writing and voice were marvellous, and reflected quite a bit on my own voice while reading this. Strangely enough, I wasn’t really put off by Cunningham’s stream-of-consciousness, and I’ll readily admit that I enjoyed his narrative style more than Woolf’s.
Overall: Although I really enjoyed this book and it has made me think and feel certain things that many books don’t quite manage to do, The Hours won’t be one of my “favourite” novels. There’s just something lacking about it—though I can’t quite put my finger on it—and it might have something to do with timing and circumstance. I might re-read it in a decade or two, and it might become my go-to book, but for now, it’s merely something of which I’m rather fond, and which helped pass the time.
For those who like numbers: 4/5