Quite by chance I read two similarly themed novels back to back recently.
Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) really grabbed me. It’s about a political kidnap attempt in a Latin American country. The kidnap doesn’t go to plan, leaving a houseful of kidnappers and international hostages cooped (couped, one might say) together for weeks, surrounded by police.
Patchett skips from character to character, often without pause. For most writers this would make confusion but she handles POV deftly. Deft would be my word for the novel. Despite complexity the story never becomes bogged down. Tiny throw-away lines highlight massive implications. When a translator and a female freedom fighter fall in love, it starts:
She gently brushed his eyes closed again. Her hand was cool and soft. It smelled of metal.
(metal – she carries a gun.)
All is clear, concise, yet fully-formed, well-rounded.
There’s a feel of slight unreality which works to the advantage of the narrative. The lines are clear, crafted – each building character and plot. There’s so much underlying the characters’ interactions – wealth/poverty; desperation; love; language/understanding; cultures colliding – all drawn together by the one language all the characters may share, music.
Verdict: gripping, moving, fascinating – and I cried.
That same unreality pervades Snow (Orhan Pamuk), which I read a few weeks ago. It’s also a prize-winning novel but I just did not get on with it. I loved the themes (some of which I probably missed but I did google a lot of references) and the word play (the names all have meanings; Ka is the poet MC; the story is set in Kars; “kar” is snow in Turkish) and the action – also a plot with a coup. However, I felt rather like I was wading through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s icy wastes again (it took me three goes to get into Frankenstein, years ago). Lots of lovely ideas but either convoluted writing or a poor translation. A newspaper written before events – so the events have to follow, is a brilliant thought. However, I wanted the writing to be clearer. Perhaps it’s the translation that is lacking.
On the opening page I met this image:
As soon as the bus set off, our traveller glued his eyes to the window next to him.
On the next:
So let us take advantage of this lull to whisper a few biographical details.
No, dear gentle reader writerer, please, let’s not, and please cut the clichés. At that point I threw the book across the room. For some reason – possibly because Margaret Attwood (on the front cover) says “Essential reading for our times” I tried again. Somehow, despite longwinded syntax, confusing clauses, clichés, excesses and – to me, at least – cardboard characters who witter on and on worse than politicians on TV, I struggled to the end.
Ka could tell at once from the fury in her eyes that he had found her weak spot, but then she gave him a strange smile that filled him with fear … and jealousy. He was afraid that Kadife was about to tell him something damning about Ipek. ‘We don’t have much time,’ he said. He could hear that strange note of dread in his own voice.
[After that, they argue for another three pages. Not much time? Pur-lease!]
Marvellous premise, potentially fascinating characters, excellent metaphors but very hard to warm to the characters or follow what is going on.