Sunday, 11 July 2010

Blind Review: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I was pleasantly surprised by Twilight. Given the hype around it and the predominantly teen female readership I was expecting something vapid and Mary-Sue-ish. Instead I got a touching and sentimental tale with just a touch of darkness. It is a beautiful book, but is it deserving of the hype?

Bella and Edward are an elderly couple living the twilight of their lives, in more than one sense. Twilight is the grey, unreal-seeming time between night and day, as the sun's light creeps into the world, but before it has risen; it is also the time when the day falls to night, and light fades all too quickly.

A chance encounter with a filthy and unkempt homeless man, Jacob, leads to some surprising revelations. Both Edward and Bella had known Jacob but neither had ever spoken of him. As they lie in bed, waking into unsure light or drifting to sleep with the departing sun, they talk. They recount hazy memories from their youth, when childhood became adulthood, when they both knew Jacob but not each other; stories neither of them had been able to tell before. Defining moments, but not always ones to be proud of.

Woven into these early biographies is evidence of their current lives, subtle mentions of the many ways in which a human life eventually fails as old age takes hold. Both Bella and Edward's grip on the world is fading, but will their grip on each other remain strong as each threatening truth is compulsively recounted?

In my opinion the books main failing (although a minor one) is its male characters. While Bella completely and believably came to life for me, from her fatalistic youth to her caring, compassionate elderly self, Edward just didn't feel as deep. It's a minor criticism and many people will disagree with me because the character is still rich, but for me, compared to the perfectly three dimensional character that Bella is, he just didn't sparkle. Jacob is much less interesting than either of them, he really isn't more than a cipher, which is a shame because some more detail on how he fell from the person in Edward and Bella's memories to the person they encounter would have been welcome; although then I might have complained that his story interfered too much with Edward and Bella's own.

Twilight eloquently demonstrates how a person's past inevitably colours who they become but shouldn't wholly define them. It is a well-handled look at human nature and the essence of blame and accusation... can redemption survive revelation? Maybe that makes it seem a little more hard-hitting than it is; those elements are there, but the main thrust of the book is about the tenderness and trust a lifetime together breeds, and the strength true love engenders.

So does it deserve the hype? For a book with real depth, real characters and such gentle (but perfect) pace to capture the hearts of so many younger readers - usually obsessed with cheap romance and obvious tension - is a truly promising occurrence. Twilight certainly deserves to be lauded, but it is an unusual target for hype as we usually understand it.

So, no, I don't think it deserves the hype. Because 'hype' implies sensationalism, which belittles the true literary worth of this book.

Right, I'm off to not buy New Moon.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Blind Review: The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts by Louis De Bernieres

Complex and insightful, the War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts is as much about the frictions that strain familial loyalty as it is about the politics of nationalism and ownership. (Although don't let the word 'politics' put you off, they are merely the wrapper for the human drama.)

The book is set on a fictional peninsula in southern Spain - the metaphorical nether parts of Don Emmanuel. Two branches of the Emmanuel family claim ownership of the land (another clever play with the title, of course, referring to the progeny of his loins). The current owners of the land, the Garcias, seized it during the troubled period of the Spanish civil war, having been long looking for an opportunity to oust the Emmanuels, whose claim they see as illegitimate.

These two families are both descended from the original Don Emmanuel. The Garcias through his mistress, who they claim was his true love and to whose descendants, so they say, he promised the land. The Emmanuels hold a more direct claim, being the get of the Don's wife. However, there is doubt cast upon her faithfulness and whether they were truly the Don's children.

Like a modern day Romeo and Juliet, this book is about the tension between the two families or, more accurately, the more strident members of those families and the conflict, sometimes quite brutal, this tension causes within their community. Particularly telling is how the relationships between the younger members of the families, who are more willing to forgive, anger the older generation and ultimately exacerbate the situation.

Where the author's brilliance shines through is in demonstrating how this generational gap shifts and history repeats itself when the damaging effects of the civil war (and their own conflict within it) turn what was the younger generation during that time period into the same kind of narrow-minded, confrontational older generation they themselves railed against.

As that suggests the book is set between two time periods, that of the modern day and of the Spanish Civil war (the thirties), with Don Emmanuel himself being revealed through a series of letters uncovered in the latest bout of explosive violence. The different strands are well-handled and never confusing. The letter device may be a little disappointingly uninventive, but these letters also serve to reveal the true legitimacy of the two sides of the family and ultimately dictate how the book is resolved, so they are integral to the story and justifiable.

It is also worth mentioning just how remarkable Louis de Bernieres' evocation of Spain is, given that he is a Frenchman, writing in English. There are little touches in the culture and habits, little tweaks to the Mediterranean landscape, that position the reader exactly where he should be.

Both tragic and redemptive in conclusion, the War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts is a heartbreaking journey, but one well worth taking.