Sunday, 29 December 2013

Book #40

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Despite the tumour-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel's story is about to be completely rewritten.

I finished this novel hours ago and I've been trying to gather my thoughts together since. I'm still unsure how the book sits with me. I wanted to love it, and I felt I should love it. The subject matter is so grim and tender that of course I burst into tears at many of the poignant points made. I'm unsure whether that is due to Green's writing skills, or my fragile emotional state, however I know many others who cried through the whole book.

Hazel and Augustus meet at a cancer support group, and fall in love. They're very obviously not like normal teenagers, and their story is not a normal teenage love story. It's very beautiful and romantic, and their realism is absolutely breathtaking. They know they won't be here for long, and they live their lives accordingly. 

The story stems from Green's experiences working as a student chaplain in a children's hospital. He describes this as "devastating", however I'm sure you'll agree it must've been so much worse than that. Green gives us Hazel and Augustus not as cancer victims who are heroic, fighting the losing battle, but as real teenagers dealing with a real illness. He shows us how a sixteen year old deals with the fact that she will die young, and her thoughts on her funeral, the pain, and what will happen to everyone she leaves behind. He gives us no heroics and no strong soldiers, only the fact that cancer is ugly and debilitating and that although it consumes a life, it will not define it. His messages are strong and perceptive, and I was very impressed by the way the story felt.

My issue with this novel is that you're dragged into Augustus and Hazel's lives as a voyeur. You weep for them and mourn their conditions, but you're nothing but a passenger. You're not a family member; you love the characters, but not enough. You're a witness to the most awful of situations, and you attempt to understand what the characters are going through, but my problem is that you absolutely cannot do this unless you've been through it yourself. Green puts across the pain and suffering of the victims and their families as best he can, but I doubt anyone can truly appreciate how anyone would feel in such a tragic situation. I felt didn't have the right to laugh at the cancer jokes, nor completely grasp the metaphorical and existential musings, for I'm one of many who (optimistically) believe they will live a long healthy life. I felt like a fraud.

For the reasons above, I feel I could also have a cheek to describe the novel as gorgeous and fierce, and have completely struggled to write this review. I would, however, recommend the novel to anyone strong enough to read it.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Book #39

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

In a fit of drunken anger, Michael Henchard sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas at a country fair. Over the course of the following years, he manages to establish himself as a respected and prosperous pillar of the community of Casterbridge, but behind his success there always lurk the shameful secret of his past and a personality prone to self-destructive pride and temper.

I often struggle to name my favourite author. I've read so many books by so many different people that I can't quite put my finger on my absolute favourite. Differing genres and messages make it all the more difficult. However, of all the classic novelists, Hardy is my absolutely favourite, and The Mayor of Casterbridge the most wonderful classic novel of all. With Jude coming in a close second. 

The novel is so perfectly constructed I could spend all night praising it. It has everything required for a circus of drama - love triangles, people coming back from the dead, bad timing, lies, eavesdropping, deceit, public shaming - but is far more than all that. This is the story of Michael Henchard's long self-punishment for the shameful sale of his wife and daughter twenty years prior. Hardy really makes you live through this with Henchard; you taste his discomfort, feel his sorrow, and although he disgusts you, you live in hope for him as he tries to redeem himself. Unfortunately, Hardy novels aren't well-known for their fair and forgiving treatment of main characters, but hope is a nice thing to have.

Henchard's subsequent downfall is absolutely mesmerising. We see how the past coming back to haunt a person can really destroy them, how regrets and shame can really shape a person, and also how missed opportunities, no matter how minor, can really make a difference. The worst part, for me, was Henchard knowing he couldn't change the past, but being totally oblivious of how to move on as a better person. That's a terrifying state of mind to be in; Hardy's depiction of Henchard's mind slowly ebbing away is priceless and horrifying. He's his own worst critic, and aren't we all? Hardy's grasp of human nature is amazing, and can even be related to in our time.

I enjoyed Hardy's exploration of how events affect people differently, along with his social commentary on the people involved. As always, Hardy's women are concerned with their social reputations, and the men are constantly battling for the alpha-male title. Most of all, seeing how the characters interacted, never knowing how they were going to react to a situation, was brilliant. Sparks flew. Wonderful.

I'd encourage anyone to consider reading this novel, and please let go of your preconceptions of classic literature. This has more drama than a modern soap opera, and more peeling back of the human psyche than Facebook.