fiction, review

Joyride to Jupiter

Quietly vibrant, or brimming with subtle emotions―perhaps that is the way to describe Nuala O’Connor’s Joyride to Jupiter. It may sound like a collection of nineteen dull short stories with flat tone at first, but once readers get deeper into each of them, striking characters with heart-wrenching stories and clever narrative-handling are there to be found. O’Connor indeed tell them matter-of-factly, no flowery words or anything―she doesn’t seem to feel the need for―but the result is some knocking effects and restlessness banging in our heads.

The banging is loudest in some, like in Consolata, where Helen brings her new boyfriend Matthew to see her mother at her old house. It has been a long time since she came back home, and distant, somewhat bitter memories slowly open up before the reader as she’s thinking of her past, her late father, and Sister Consolata. Helen knew her when she was still a child and they were friends. But as layers of secrets unfolded unexpectedly, that friendship unfortunately―painfully?―had to fall to pieces.

Family bitterness also appears in Tinnycross, though in a different form and on another level. Oliver and Bernard are trying to divide the estate they inherit from their mother. Olly wants a half of the estate value, but Bunny denies him that, still blaming their mother’s death on his brother for never coming home to see her. Though Olly finally gets the amount of money he needs from Bunny’s wife’s own share, but deep inside, there’s a pain he never shares―pain coming from the attachment he never ceases to have to their family estate, to his childhood home.

This family theme seems to keep repeating, more so in Mayo Oh Mayo and Storks. But Mayo Oh Mayo is not the type of family story people usually have in mind. It’s more of how the writer, or the characters she creates, see the family bond. Is it more than anything that a passionate, brief affair cannot throw it off the cliff any minute? Or is it something that you can crush under your feet so easily? Apparently, the male character here doesn’t only think that Dublin and everything in it do not suit him, but also that a fling is a fling, and nothing about that can disturb his family life―though Siobhán, our female protagonist he’s having an affair with, thinks the otherwise.

Meanwhile, Storks throws out all the jokes life has in store. Fergus and Caitríona are on vacation in Spain to relieve their pain after losing their baby (again). It’s so obvious that Caitríona has it worse than her husband, and she just doesn’t want to do anything or say a word or even meet anyone. But unfortunately, she, and her husband, meet Worms Gormley―or Will, as Caitríona remembers him. He is an old friend of Fergus, and an old lover of Caitríona, but nobody knows. It may not be the right time to see a man with his happy family and healthy kids when you have just lost yours, but it’s definitely not the right time to find out that your secret ex-lover was actually your husband’s roommate, or that he’s the one who can actually heal your deepest wound.

O’Connor sort of want to state, however, that there might be one thing which is more important than family, or marriage bond: the bond between women, sympathy and empathy between women. Shut Your Mouth, Hélène doesn’t say that women have to keep mum about everything, but to do it at the right time. Women, of course, are entitled to say anything they like, anything they want, anything they deem proper to talk about; but when a man has sexually abused you and his wife, who was witnessing it, strikes him to death, you probably do not want to tell anybody about it.

It’s not suprising when women write about women, about their feelings, suffering, points of view, unpleasant experiences, their want (and dreams) of freedom, their secret passion and various problems. But Nuala O’Connor has certainly written women’s stories in a thorough way, with a very quiet yet very loud voice. The theme is mostly around family, yes, but she doesn’t hesitate to get deeper into it and dig out the darkest part of it. O’Connor also doesn’t hesitate to claim that there are other kinds of family (in The Boy from Petrópolis and The Donor) and that a family is never okay (Futuretense). That being said, what O’Connor always emphasizes here in this collection is women’s feelings and experiences, and how they see and handle their problems―whether it is with hatred or bitterness, anger or sympathy, sadness or love. Seeing all the female characters in all of the short stories contained, we can see (and be convinced) that women can be different from one another, but rest assured that they have one thing in common: they are free people, they want freedom, they practice freedom, they can be and do anything they like.

The problem with this book is that not all the premises are interesting, and not all the narratives are told engrossingly. Some are just so-so that you might want to skip them, or read them without paying much attention. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, though.

One thing for sure, Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor gives you a wide-range angle on women, various points of view we should ponder about―different ones we should use to look at them.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

The Gathering

Indonesian edition’s cover

When we delve into the past we’ll often find anger somewhere inside it, as being heavily implied in Anne Enright’s The Gathering. We can rarely make peace with our past, holding it responsible for what happens to us in the present. It might need forever for a particular event to ooze out of our bad memory and lead us to the lane directing our actions, but it will one day finally happen, and we’ll never like it. Enright, through the story of an Irish family torn apart by secrets and the choices they make, deftly presents to readers this idea of dealing with the past and all the heartache accompanying it.

The sudden death of her brother Liam means that Veronica has to break the news to her somewhat mentally unstable mother, a bitter fact she has to carry on her shoulders along with the realization that she’s the only one among her many siblings reliable enough to do it. But if you think dealing with the task and bringing Liam’s body back to Ireland are not hard enough for her, then you haven’t seen all. She has also to discover the shocking, heart-shattering fact behind her beloved brother’s death: that he’s actually committed suicide. It immediately brings back deep-buried, saddening memories she has almost forgotten, memories involving her grandparents and their landlord, Lamb Nugent. Of course, these memories are not ones which are so real as Veronica seems only to imagine everything. But there are some about her and her brother, about the life they live in their grandparents’ house that wouldn’t spring to her mind if Liam didn’t drown himself. These vaguely-recalled, real recollections then break open their family’s secrets: their uncle’s mental illness, the constant absence of their grandfather, the mysterious, continuous presence of Lamb Nugent in their grandparents’ house, the death of their brother Stevie when he is still a baby, Liam’s drinking habit, and the horrible incident that might be the reason why Liam decides to die.

Through The Gathering, Anne Enright uncovers the unavoidable nature of having and being in a family. It seems like she peels every single layer of that nature and force the core of it on the reader so they’ll see the fact: that no family is a normal family. It’s no exaggeration to say that all families are dysfunctional, in their own ways. More or less, Veronica has made a correct statement that being part of a family is the most tormenting way of living. And having secrets is what’s most tormenting about it. People have secrets, family keep secrets. But to what extent does it affect their condition? One secret of the past can torture someone for their entire life and lead them to an action their own relatives won’t understand. Once again, Enright chooses the right means to deliver this whole idea of dysfunctionality. Throughout the narrative, she appears to say that not every member of our family can understand us, completely or not. Sometimes we just keep ourselves too much to ourselves, sometimes our family are just too much busy with themselves to get involved in our lives. And when something terrible happens, it’s already too late for them to try and understand the reason. There’s even no point in revealing the secret anymore.

The Gathering has a very strong narrative and the plot is ever so carefully, neatly organized that the reader can feel its cover peel off little by little and reveal everything within. At the beginning, it feels a bit hard to get into the introductory chapters, as they feel more imaginary than real and are difficult to catch up. Thankfully, as the next ones unfold, readers can eventually sense the power of the story Enright has woven, especially the voice of Veronica as the narrator. Through her, Enright breaks open one by one what becomes the secrets of the family she describes, along with all the emotions bottled up between her lines: sadness, anger, revenge, regret, and hatred Veronica has for her family, which, to her, only makes her life more miserable than already is. The language Enright uses to write all of those feels too much difficult to stomach at times, rendering our “burden” while reading the whole book doubled. However, it also somehow manages to drag us into a whirlpool that is Veronica’s mind, and lets us see what flares up within. The core idea, which is the breakdown of a family, might not be as exceptional as anyone would think, but Enright has a brilliant way to develop it into a heart-tuggingly engaging tale, forcing us to recognize its beauty and excellence.

The Gathering by Anne Enright is not a masterpiece, in my opinion—despite its winning the Man Booker Prize—but it is truly a huge work of contemporary literature. It seeps through our mind and gets us thinking: are our family just fine? Do we really love them? What influence do they have on us? This book can be thought of as the antithesis of romance, posing a question we wouldn’t dare to ask ourselves: is there really something called “living happily ever after”? After marrying the one we love, will everything end just there?

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Room

A book can be as exciting as it is saddening. Emma Donoghue’s Room has proven it. A Man Booker Prize finalist, the book tells of a heart-twisting expression of maternal love written from the viewpoint of a cute, smart yet still innocent little child who is forced to weave his way through the puzzling “outside” world he never knows existing. It is mostly adventurous, but there are parts where its atmosphere drags us into a deeply compassionate feeling. I wouldn’t say, looking at the narrative, that it is a wow thing, but I dare say it’s a must read in that it shows us how to understand the feelings of both a mother and a child.

To Jack, a five-year-old boy, Room is the world, the real world where he was born, where he lives “a normal life” with his Ma. What the eleven-by-eleven-foot space offers him is all he has, all his Ma can give him. He just doesn’t realize what he truly needs, what the Outside world can be to him. Now that he is five, his curiosity is growing with the vividness of everything on TV and all the things outside his skylight. Meanwhile, Ma can no longer answer his numerous questions and explain what he should know by experience. Being locked up for seven years has been hard enough for her to bear, and she knows that neither of them can stay there any longer. But getting out of the coded Room is no easy task, and living in the Outside is even more difficult afterward. Jack sees the real world as a new, strange place and he’s scared of, though a little bit enthusiastic about, many of its things and inhabitants. He longs for going back to Room, where it is his “home”, where everything is normal and nice and believable to him. While his Ma is trying to adapt to the normalcy of life she’s once known very well, Jack has to learn everything from the very start. He has even to feel what it’s like to live without his Ma and trust his strange Grandma and Steppa with his life. At the end, he discovers that the Outside world is his actual place to live and that he won’t go back to Room forever.

Jack is really a wonder kid. He’s as innocent as any other five-year-old boy, but his limited space is the only thing to blame for his astonishing innocence, for his Ma has taught him everything she can. He knows practically anything, math, reading, common knowledge. In other words, he is as smart as he is naive. Jack is portrayed very dependant to his mother as well, cannot see himself away from her. And he is so persistent in his way, naturally, childishly stubborn sometimes, also brave and endearing. He is a boy anyone would want as a child. Donoghue has successfully described him in precise, contradictory detail. She presents to the reader every psychological stage Jack has to step on, from the time he is still in Room up to the level when he is already Outside. The fear, the excitement, the awe, the bewilderment. His every thinking and feeling are so brilliantly put into words with just the right dose of lucidity. Donoghue even describes Jack’s language development through his spoken narration and dialogues, and they all seem so convincing. It’s so rare for me to read a fiction book written from a child’s perspective, and Donoghue has amazed me with hers. As for Ma, her character is so resonant of a depressed mother. Caring and loving, she also longs for her old self, her free, young, old self. All of that longing, along with her depression, confusion, mood swing and deep maternal love, is depicted very clearly yet very subtly at the same time.

Room is excellently built, consisting of five separated yet seamlessly continuous parts. It feels unbelievably stressful at times, emanating an atmosphere of desperation and misery, but it’s also cheerful where Jack’s concerned. Though founded on a true criminal case, I don’t find it terrifying when the villain comes to the scene and steals the show. In fact, I’d rather think that Old Nick’s presence is, aside from quite significant, captivating and thrilling, in a good way. Meanwhile, every time Jack and Ma appear, the atmosphere turns lovely and tender and sometimes depressing. Ma has only love for Jack, but her terrible experience and depression complicate her mind and put more burden onto her shoulder. Jack is her only anchor to the world, but I got a feeling that, through Donoghue’s clever descriptions, she’s a bit burdened by Jack’s dependency on her. All those confusing, blended atmospheres are the result of Donoghue’s brilliant writing. It’s colorful, rich, connected to any reader despite being told from a child’s point of view. I must say that I don’t quite like the narrative, especially when they seem to get out of Room so easily then have to face paparazzi and get exploited in the media like instant celebrities, and I’m really disappointed about that. However, the pace is very flowing and smooth so you’ll never be bored in the middle of the book. What the best is when Jack has to deal with his bewilderment toward the world and adjust his every step. He’s quite smart and lovable about it, despite his innocence and very limited experience.

Overall, Room by Emma Donoghue is a fabulous work of fiction. I like the basic idea, to be honest, I just don’t really like the series of events, though it ends with a riveting conclusion. In spite of the fact that I hate how it goes, Jack’s story is profound and very powerful.

Rating: 3.5/5