Friday, 27 April 2018

Forget what you've been told. Forget stories about "growing up". Marlena doesn't get to.

‘She’s the way I swear and how I let men look at me or not, she’s the bit of steel at my center, either her, herself, or the loss of her. Before that year I was nothing but a soft, formless girl, waiting for someone to come along and tell me who to be...

She lied to me all the time.’

I have begun so many sentences with something along these lines: ‘Julie Buntin’s Marlena is a novel about...’ and then I stumble over horrendous words like, ‘friendship’, ‘girlhood’, and that dreadful phrase ‘coming of age’. Because these are lazy ways that we pigeon hole a novel so that some imagined intended audience will find it. Have you ever heard anyone actually say ‘oo I love a coming of age story’. That’s not how anyone I know thinks. Marlena, is about so much and to write about it as a book concerned with intense female formative friendships misses about eleven other angles from which it speaks.

So, where to begin. The narrator Cat, or Catherine, or Cath, depending on her age and with whom she is speaking, is spurred by a phone call to remember the year in which she moved to Silver Lake, Michigan, aged fifteen, and became best friends with this torrent of beauty, pills and sorrow, Marlena. Who knows if they would have remained friends forever, probably not, but Cat never gets to find out for sure - Marlena drowns. Now she is in some way always with Cat.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A Monstrous Beauty - 'Ponti' by Sharlene Teo

What a delicious mixture of cruelty and love, of blood and youth. We have all read books where multiple characters are introduced whom the reader begins to tie together, seeking connections and unravelling their pasts. Sometimes the clever links and the wish to uncover them earlier than the author allows mask a poorly written journey. On occasion one is busy trying to second guess the ending and doesn’t notice a paucity of skill in the winding together of the stories overridden by a shock factor. No such criticism can be levelled at Ponti, the debut novel by Sharlene Teo. She throws you straight into the winded lives of Szu, Amisa and Circe, living in Singapore across sixty years, and, if the options are sink or swim, I swam breathlessly alongside them for the two days over which I lived this book. Where a multi-voiced book could follow artificial links between characters and an overly clever plot line indulging too many coincidences, this is more an insight into how the three understand themselves and through that each other, how they perceive where their lives have taken them, how ghosts both haunt and help their prey.

In which I fall over Sir Tom Stoppard

            ‘There is a way to die and a way not to die. That is very important. Hence my admiration for George the Fifth who - on his dea...