The Collector is spooky. It’s spookiness derives not from the existence of the supernatural, but from the raw plot and narrative of it’s two (and only) characters. It is nowhere near a ghost story and there is not a poltergeist to be found within its pages. But this tale left me with chills that stayed for days after I put it down. The key to the haunting brilliance of The Collector is the binary opposition between the protagonists – the so-called collector and the collected. Set in 1960s Britain, Miranda is an art student studying at the dawn of second-wave feminism; the backdrop to her world filled with student and political uprisings. Miranda is kidnapped by Frederick at the outset of the novel. Frederick is withdrawn, uneducated and unloved. Feckless. He is separated from the social world due to his inadequacies. He builds an isolated room for Miranda to ‘collect’ or keep her and thus Miranda is forced into isolation by Frederick.
As an author, Fowles is ‘fair’ to each of his protagonists. He seemingly relinquishes control as objective narrator by allowing Miranda and Frederick first person narrative for half the book each. Frederick’s perspective is first. One of Frederick’s most insightful statements to Miranda is ‘you don’t know what you are. You’re everything. I got nothing if you go’. Miranda had everything, but now shares isolation and loneliness with Frederick as it has been forced upon her. As captor and the captured, their world views are polarised physically, emotionally and socially. Through the stark contrast of his characters, Fowles makes a pretty strong comment about the class system in Britain. Fowles warns of the danger of class and intellectual divisions in a society where prosperity for the majority was becoming more widespread. He was particularly concerned with power (whether by wealth or position) getting into the hands of those intellectually unsuited to handle it. The juxtaposition of the social positions of Miranda and Frederick highlight this commentary.
Miranda as a victim is not always likeable. Empathy for her ebbs and flows despite the desperation of her situation. When she controls the narrative through the format of diary entries, she reveals an inevitable vulnerability along with her unyielding affectations.
This book is chillingly brilliant. It does not conclude with a glossy Hollywood for fairy tale ending. It’s dark and brutal. And brilliant.
I came to discover Afterwards thanks to a blitzkrieg of emails in my inbox courtesy of Amazon.
‘Can’t put down’
Amazon beckoned day after day.
Message received Amazon. I’m in.
Thankfully, I was not disappointed. Afterwards is told from the perspective of the spirit or ghost of a thirty-nine year-old woman currently in a coma after being caught in an arson-lit fire that destroyed her eight year-old son’s school. Her seventeen year-old daughter was also injured in the fire and her spirit converses with that of her mother throughout this tale. The use of the spiritual or supernatural has to be carefully constructed in any piece of fiction. The slightest hint of the ridiculous will turn most readers (including me) away. If you are put off by the absurdity of the premise in Afterwards, don’t be. Having the mother narrate from this unique perspective actually works wonderfully and allows Lupton an opportunity to create a broader narrative than she would have otherwise. In that sense, it reminded me of Alice Sebold’s haunting The Lovely Bones. Sebold’s Susie is trying to solve the mystery of her murder. So too is Lupton’s Grace trying to solve the mystery of who would want to burn down her son’s school, and indeed, hurt her daughter. In some ways, this novel is also a thriller. However, perhaps it is better that I say that this novel is in itself, thrilling.
But that’s where the similarities between Afterwards and The Lovely Bones end. Grace is ‘speaking’ to her husband. In this, another layer to this tale is added and it becomes a heart-breaking love story. Grace reminisces as she tries to reach out to her husband and indeed the peaks and troughs of a modern marriage are exposed. The reader is exposed to an imperfect marriage but one that is brimming with love.
I have to admit, I am prone to shedding the odd tear or two and Afterwards did produce some tissue-grabbing moments. The narrative is told at a fantastic pace and I do wonder if Lupton’s background as a screenwriter comes into play here (nice pun!). There are no waffling or tedious sentences. The story is told succinctly and brilliantly, unravelling just enough to keep the reader turning the page.
I have a love-hate relationship with literary awards. I love them because they provide me with countless tales to add to my ‘must-read’ list. I hate them because, oddly, they can make me feel strangely inadequate intellectually when I simply do not like or ‘get’ the overall winner. Is it me or is it the literati, the doyens and doyennes of all things literary and wonderful that are best to judge what makes a novel brilliant? I battle with this notion constantly which leads to me to a heart-breaking confession. I have read The Catcher in the Rye three times. It is supposed to be one the great American novels that defined a generation of readers and writers. I did not enjoy it. Three times. All I can say to you J.D. Salinger is that I tried.
Thankfully 2011’s Man Booker prize winner left me with no such feelings of inadequacy. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending was an absolute delight to read; a real pleasure. It’s fairly short but doesn’t suffer from that. The character development of protagonist and narrator Tony Webster unfolds beautifully. His personal journey of self-discovery and reflection is not ground-breaking but Barnes beautifully weaves Webster’s journey through moments of his personal history with his current dilemmas.
There are no big tricks in Barnes’ prose. It is a simple tale about a man’s reflections on his fairly unexceptional life. But the journey is wonderful and the few surprises we are given are welcome and thrilling.
Donna Tartt’s seminal The Goldfinch could be described as a coming of age novel with a young orphan boy as protagonist. But The Goldfinch’s Theo Decker is no Oliver Twist. He is flawed and far from infallible which makes his story all the more heart-wrenching and believable. I have never been a teenage boy. But unlike J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield who I never related to, Decker is entirely relatable. His losses are excruciating as Tartt merges anger, sorrow and confusion into a successful symbiosis of emotions.
There is an overriding melancholy that blankets the novel, but not in a suffocating way. It sits comfortably above the plot; near enough to be felt but far enough away that moments of joy and laughter can be felt. This melancholy is best understood through two important characters – one primarily absent and one whose presence is limited. Theo’s mother Audrey exists in a limited capacity at the beginning part of the novel, but she is as much an influence on her son in death as in life (and indeed the novel as a whole). Her bewitching presence reminds the reader of the brevity of life; that good people are involved in toxic and abusive relationships and work in vapid and uninspiring jobs. Good people can live pretty awful lives frankly. Lives that they live for others but not often for themselves. But Audrey remind us that pleasure can be found in the beauty of creativity. Her visits to the Met, the Frick and MOMA in NY are a celebration of her passion for art. Her unfinished art history studies at NYU remind us of the unfulfilled dreams of many before life gets in the way. I’ve read a couple reviews about The Goldfinch. It’s hard not to. But none have recognised the importance of Audrey and her influence over Theo’s very being. It seems the tragedy of her absence by death in the novel is treated by absence outside of it.
The second character that Tartt achingly develops is that of Mrs Barbour. Mrs Barbour with all her affectations of upper East Side Stepford wife is so incredibly layered, her depth cannot be overestimated. Mrs Barbour begins and ends the novel as a character that is seemingly always out of reach of the grasp of Theo. Emotionally and physically Mrs Barbour is always a step away. As her physical absence gives way to emotional absence, her influence over Theo’s world is always there. Mrs Harbour is a difficult character to like. When juxtaposed against Audrey her passion for the arts is seemingly the monetary value of art rather than any appreciation of it. She can be selfish, difficult and more concerned with the opinions of others than of her own family. And yet Mrs Barbour is fundamentally vulnerable. When the glossy fragile world she has built around her dissipates, what remains is a shell of a being.
The Goldfinch is a hefty read. At over 700 pages, it requires commitment. But it’s commitment that I believe brings great rewards once the final page has been read.