Monday, February 2, 2015

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE STRANGE LIBRARY” by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker / Random House, $NZ34:99); “THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN” by Paula Hawkins (Doubleday / Random House, $36:99)

Do you know what I mean by a freak or “sport” in the book world? I mean an odd little volume, which seems designed to appeal to a very specialised audience. Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library is such a sport. Barely 80 pages long, and most of that taken up with illustrations, this long short story could be a children’s story, except that it has a chilly, nightmarish and very Kafkaesque tone to it. As I said once before on this blog [look up my take on his Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage via the index at right], the Japanese fabulist Haruki Murakami is openly and avowedly very influenced by Kafka.
The Strange Library is told by a little boy, on his way home from school, who goes into the library and, when asked what he wants, thinks of the oddest subject he can and says: “How taxes were collected in the Ottoman empire”. At once he is swept down dark corridors and through an underground labyrinth to a special closed reading room where he is given three books on this arcane subject and is told he must read them at once. But he cannot check them out. They are reference books. So he is locked in a cell, with a ball-and-chain attached to his leg, until he has read them. And he is further warned, by a strange submissive sheep-man who brings him donuts, that if he does not remember everything he has read, then his brains will be eaten out by the old man who is the library’s sinister keeper. After all, if you extract information out of libraries, why can’t libraries extract information out of you? A pet starling, a sinister black dog and a beautiful girl who cannot speak also come into the story – and if you think this is all sounding distinctly Freudian, then I think you are right.
But what does it all mean?
I admit I haven’t the least idea. Is it saying something about how daunting libraries can seem to children? Is it talking about the power of a child’s imagination in conjuring up, Caligari-like, a sinister milieu out of something quite mundane? Is it about the power of memory and imagination, especially in the moments when the boy is swept into the books he has to read and imaginatively becomes an Ottoman tax collector?
Blowed if I know.
But it really is a “sport”, and quite a charming one, mainly illustrated (in this English-language edition which is apparently designed quite differently from the original Japanese-language edition) with “found” images from nineteenth century prints or mid-twentieth century cookbooks or manuals of astronomy, especially where the phases of the moon are concerned.
And who precisely is the audience? NOT children, I would guess. More likely its “specialised” audience are Murakami’s worldwide legion of fans and complete-ists, without whose existence it might not have got a translation in the first place,.

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I’ve said this so often on this blog that you are probably tired of hearing it, but it’s still worth saying. So forgive me for repeating myself yet again: If a novel is newly-published, I consider it unmannerly for reviewers to spike all its surprises and give away all its twists.
This is especially true of whodunits of course, and as Paula Hawkins’ debut novel The Girl on the Train is a whodunit, I hereby make a solemn promise to provide no spoilers and to break off my synopsising when I am at most about a third of the way through the narrative.
Here goes.
Rachel, a very unhappy woman in her early 30s, commutes on the train each day from Ashbury to Euston Station in London. Her life is a mess. Her husband Tom divorced her when she couldn’t produce a baby and when she started to hit the bottle. To make matters worse, Tom has remarried Anna, who has produced a healthy baby, so Rachel feels permanently humiliated. Rachel’s drinking has progressed to the point where she is virtually an alcoholic. Sometimes she has blackouts (which will be crucial to the way the story develops). She has not told her very forbearing landlady that she was fired from her job months previously (for drunkenness, of course). So when she travels to and from London, she is only pretending to go to a place of work.
But one thing brightens up her days. She loves looking out from her commuter train at the houses that back onto the line, including the house where her ex-husband Tom and his new wife Anna now live. As she remarks on the novel’s second page
My head leaning against the carriage window, I watch these houses roll past me like the tracking shot in a film. I see them as others do not; even their owners probably don’t see them from this perspective. Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment. There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safely at home.
Near where Tom and Anna live, Rachel regularly spots from her train window a couple who seem to be the perfect, contented middle-class couple. She envies them. She makes up pet names for them. But we as readers soon discover that their real names are Megan and Scott, and all is not as well with them as it looks from a passing train window. Megan feels neglected by Scott and is suffering a severe case of what used to be called suburban neurosis.
Then one day, from her passing train window, Rachel sees something very disturbing. And soon after, Megan disappears and is presumed murdered.
Which is all the set-up and beyond which point, a third of the way through the novel and as promised, I cease my plot summary.
The narration of the novel is first-person, mainly told by Rachel, but with sections where Anna and Megan take over – so we have a chorus of three women’s voices and the further we get the more we discover how unhappy all their lives are. Rachel is the prime witness to some nasty things which she tries to convey to the police – but as she is clearly a bit of a fantasist, an alcoholic, a liar and a stalker (of her ex-husband and his wife), the police quite understandably see her as an unreliable witness and do not believe her. So Rachel proceeds with her own investigation. There is in this novel the big inbuilt improbability that a woman who is such an emotional train-wreck would have the doggedness to proceed with her sleuthing, especially as she so often reminds us of her weaknesses:
My better angels lost again, defeated by drink, by the person I am when I drink. Drunk Rachel sees no consequences, she is either excessively expansive and optimistic or wrapped up in hate. She has no past, no future. She exists purely in the moment. Drunk Rachel – wanting to be part of the story….. she lied. I lied.”(p.109)
Still, we can accept it as a convention of the whodunit, just as (through slightly gritted teeth) I accept the conventions of the author withholding vital information from us; and of the eventual unmasked culprit neatly tying up the loose ends by giving a confession of how exactly the crime was committed.
To begin with, an investigation sparked by something glimpsed from a passing train reminded me of Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington (filmed long ago as Murder She Said). A main character who acts as voyeur into other people’s lives has overtones of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. But Paula Hawkins seems mainly to be writing for people of her own generation, so the focus of the novel is on younger people.
Improbabilities and all, it stacks up as a good psychological thriller and it has already been optioned for filming, in which format it will probably become better known than in this novel form.

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