Right Book, Right Time

Some books* are like roses – they need just the right conditions to grow on you, and you need to catch them at just the right time otherwise you’ll just see a mess of bleak branches and threatening thorns rather than a wonderland of beauty and colour.

*maybe all books are really – but I think this a whole other (and probably very long) blog post.

I recently finished One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and it felt like a rose-book to me.

OneHundredYearsOfSolitude
one hundred years of solitude

‘… experience had taught her that the history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spinning into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle.’

There’s so much I could say about One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not much I can add to the already extensive debate surrounding it. It’s a mindbogglingly successful book that has had a massive cultural impact, that helped to spark the fires of magical realism as a genre, and that has baffled/bewitched millions of readers around the world for over fifty years.

Personally, I ended up loving it – despite a lot of intitial confusion/frustration/bewilderment and thinking that there was no way I would be able to muddle through to the end.

It turns out the conditions and times were right, though, for this rose-book to grow on me.

‘It rained for four years, eleven months, and two days.’

I have a few take aways from it for anyone thinking of giving this epic and surreal family saga a try…

  • it’s a whirlwind. Wars are begun and ended in a single sentence. Characters suddenly ascend to heaven whilst hanging out the laundry. Flowers rain from the sky and have to be shovelled off the streets. The book is a tornado of weird emotions, disturbing relationships, mini dramas, mega dramas, magical happenings, and dizzyingly complicated politics.
  • there are A LOT of characters with the same name. Get used to seeing Aureliano and Arcadio written on the page and good luck trying to distinguish between those characters based on the names alone. I could only differentiate between them by their behaviour and the characters around them, and even then I slipped up.
  • the imagery is insanely good. The book is a kaleidoscope of magic and wonder – I had to keep taking little moments just to absorb all the incredible mind pictures Márquez was painting on the page.
  • reading it feels a lot like fighting your way through a tangle of roots. But – after a while, hopefully, if you still like it and want to stick with it – those roots unfurl into a jungle of lush green leaves and colourful flowers. It’s still chaotic and wild, but it’s an interesting and hypnotic world to be in all the same.
  • it needs devotion. It’s not a book you can dip in and out of – it’s too mad for that.
  • it’s uncomfortable. There are creepy, icky relationships and creepy, outdated attitudes and neither of those things makes for a comfortable reading experience.
  • it will make you appreciate how normal your family is. If you’re beginning to find lockdown family life a bit tedious and samey, just be thankful you’re not in lockdown with the Buenidas.
  • it’s funny. There’s a lot of absurd humour to sink your teeth into.
  • it’s really, really weird. This is just worth reiterating.
  • it’s captivating. Despite everything – and there’s a lot of everything, I know – the story has a gravitational pull that’s hard to resist. It’s wacky and strange and disorientating, but magical in its bizarreness.

‘… both continued living on their own, cleaning their respective rooms while the cobwebs fell like snow on the rose bushes, carpeted the beams, cushioned the walls. It was around that time that Fernanda got the impression that the house was filling up with elves.’

To be honest, I’m really not sure that I would have grown to love One Hundred Years of Solitude if I hadn’t had a couple of days free to lounge around in the sunshine and get completely lost in it. I can easily see how in different circumstances I would have slammed it shut and vowed never to open it again.

A holiday week in lockdown had some unexpected reading benefits, at least.

Right book, right time.

Reads – Normal People

Normal People by Sally Rooney. Book review of Normal People. Irish literature.

It feels like a long, long time since I’ve set foot in a bookshop that didn’t have copies of Normal People by Sally Rooney on prominent, in-yer-face, no chance you’ll miss it display.

I have never seen so many sardine cans, so frequently in my life.

And in all that long, long time of in-yer-face displays, I was curious, if sceptical, about Normal People. I lost count of the number of times I picked it up, put it down, picked it back up, placed it back down again, added to cart, deleted from cart – unsure if a book that hyped could live up to its impressive reputation.

And you know what? I actually think it can.

‘Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in the west of Ireland, but the similarities end there. In school, Connell is popular and well-liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation – awkward but electrifying -something life-changing begins. Normal People is a story of mutual fascination, friendship and love. It takes us from that first conversation to the years beyond, in the company of two people who try to stay apart but find they can’t.’

Most of the commentary around the book seems polarised. You either get it or you don’t. You either love it or you hate it. It’s a seering insight into millenial relationships or over-hyped millenial angst stretched to nearly 300 pages. Marmite.

In all honesty? I didn’t love it. But I certainly didn’t hate it.

I liked it a lot. I enjoyed its emotional roller-coaster and was kinda hypnotized by Connell and Marianne’s angsty ways.

Sally Rooney delicately captures the push and pull, the fascinations and repulsions, desire, love, confusion, pride, shame, misunderstandings, and vulnerabilities that plague their relationship. They’re strangely spellbound by one another, but they’re also never quite on the same page and never quite singing from the same hymn sheet. They’re riddled with misgivings and shame, constantly conveying/perceiving the wrong message, always sure of their unsureness.

It’s painful to read, as well as weirdly comforting.

The book does feel like it misses the mark at times, though. Marianne’s character arc is ultimately unsatisfying; a let down, almost. There are things that jar and things that don’t sit quite right. The ending, also, is frustrating – even if it has a degree of inevitability.

But I liked it. Really liked it.

So, if you see that infamous sardine can and find yourself wondering: should I?

I would say: yes, yes you should.