Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Virgin & The Whale and Stay Where You Are & Then Leave - two reviews from Maggie Rainey-Smith

The Virgin & the Whale'
A Love Story
by Carl Nixon
Published by Random House NZ (Vintage)
RRP $37.99

The cover of this book has a hot air balloon floating in a green sky above exotic temples.   Both the title and the cover are quirky and eye-catching conjuring up thoughts of the fantastical.  
                This is an old-fashioned 'story' - it's a tale within a tale, within a tale.   There is quite a lot of authorial comment directed at the reader.  Initially, this really irritated me, but I was sufficiently engaged with the story to keep reading.   For example:
                 "You are undoubtedly wondering about this story's name - 'The virgin & the Whale... Perhaps it is the title that has caused you to dip a figurative toe into these pages?'  
                The main story is essentially, a beautiful love story.   Not your ordinary every-day sort of love story though.  Instead, we have Lucky, a returned serviceman from the First World War, in the city of Mansfield (a fictitious double of Christchurch) and Elizabeth his nurse.    Lucky (thus named when he is found alive after a piece of the right femur of another soldier is embedded in his brain), has no memory from prior to the moment of his injury.   He's back home recuperating and his wife is trying to get him to remember who he really is.   She employs Elizabeth a nurse, whose husband is missing in action overseas, because Elizabeth has had experience working both in Mansfield and in London nursing returned servicemen.
                  The various permutations of how to tell the story are then played out by the author as he assumes a scientific hat (looking at velocity and physics and how injuries occur during war - in particular the splinter of bone that enters Lucky's brain), his addressing the reader, even to imply that the reader might now be ready to hurl the book at the wall  - and indeed, right around this point, the author read my mind - and instead of hurling the book, I was appreciative that he could guess how I was feeling, and carried on.  A strange, but in the end effective ruse.  
                So, there's the more or less straight-forward love story (which may or may not be a true story) and then there is the sub-text about what it is that makes us human - do we exist because of memory and are we just our memories, and if we lose that, then who are we? 
                Adding to the layers of 'The Virgin & the Whale' is a story that Elizabeth who is nursing Lucky, is telling to her young son to divert his attention from the fact that his father  is missing in action and may not return from the war.  In tale within the tale,  we meet the Virgin and the Whale...
                I got the feeling reading this book, that the author had been gifted the original love story and as he stated, had been searching for a way into it, the right way to tell it and so he's constructed a series of stories within stories.  Is this effective?   Was this the best way?   I think even the author is asking those questions.   Now and then I wondered how it might have been if I'd just been reading a straight-forward fictional account of Elizabeth and Lucky and also been able to get inside the head of Lucky's distressed wife.   But, in the end, I decided the author has chosen a 'novel' way to tell this story adding other layers to what is, after all, a quite simple, but very affecting love story.           

'Stay where you are & then leave'
by John Boyne
Published by Random House New Zealand
RRP $26.90

                Interestingly, Graham Beattie had given me two books to review as I left for Siem Reap, and the second  'Stay where you are & then leave' by John Boyne, is also about the First World War and the impact of shell shock, or as we now refer to it more commonly, as post traumatic stress syndrome. . There are parallels between these two books as both explore the limited scientific understanding of brain injuries and shell shock at that particular time.   They include some of the more primitive treatments such as heavy sedation and frequent misdiagnosis, such as Schizophrenia. I found it interesting to read the two books with this similar theme, one as an adult story, the other written for children.  (And, you might note, both these books use the ampersand in the title, which struck me as interesting -  sharing themes and the ampersand).  
                I had read 'The Boy in Striped Pyjamas' but I had been also, a little uneasy about the (I say this with caution), exploitation of my emotions - but in the end, felt it had been a successful and interesting child's view of a Concentration Camp from the German perspective.   'Stay where you are & then leave' is a similar sort of book, looking at the First World War this time, and the implications of shell-shock and of conscientious objection.  I read and reviewed John Boyne's' 'The Absolutist' which along with forbidden love, also looks at the issue of conscientious objection and the First World War - a book I liked.   I feel less able to be objective about this book for children as I am not as familiar with the genre.   I felt my emotions exploited and I found it hard to suspend my disbelief.  In a book for children perhaps the rules are different.   The young boy who is only nine and who wags school to shine shoes at Kings Cross - I could believe that - but I couldn't believe that his mother who worked as a nurse, didn't notice the extra money he was slipping into her purse.   I was reminded of another novel 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' by Jonathan Safran Foer, which was well received, but that I disliked for similar reasons - I couldn't suspend my disbelief about a boy roaming New York post 9/11.
                And, so with 'Stay where you are & then leave', Boyne is tackling some fairly hefty issues for children (as in the case of 'The Boy in Striped Pyjamas').  It feels like a book trying to have a bet both ways - to appeal to both adults and children.  There are some nice touches with famous guest appearances, including Lloyd George having his shoes shone by the protagonist at Kings Cross Station.  I did enjoy the scenes at Kings Cross, and the details about trains in England during that time, stopping before the actual station to try and avoid bombings.  And then strangely, characters from 'The Absolutist' turn up, Wilf with his wooden leg, to have his shoes shined and Marion Bancroft his sister - two fictional characters who will mean nothing, unless you've read 'The Absolutist'.  
                In the end, I did feel as an adult reader, that I was being manipulated into feeling things, directed, rather than being left room to respond as a reader.
                I'll be interested to see if this book has the same wide appeal as 'The Boy in Striped Pyjamas' And too, the thing that haunted the story for me, was that we were so close to the nine year old protagonist and the impact of war on his life -  his Dad missing in action and then hospitalised, his mother out working, while he wags school and shoe shines - my knowing that in twenty years time in this fictional world he inhabits, he will be called up to serve in the Second World War.-

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