The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

I should note now, before you have any misconceptions of my reading habits, that I am not an overly large fan of science fiction; admitted, I enjoy dabbling in the genre, yet only generally in the moderner novels. So it will surprise you to hear, that a month ago, when I went to the rather unique and charming Shakespeare’s Bookshop in Paris, I bought exactly what I have been trying to avoid reading for years.

the left

The book was small, only 248 pages (but more on that later) and I thought to myself, as the popular press often tells one, that I should take a risk. So, a perfectly appropriate way to do so would be if I submerged myself in the unfamiliar waters of strange science fiction plots, planets and pulsesars , in the hope of being rewarded by enjoying the novel.

Unfortunately, it turns out that I will forever will know that The Left Hand of Darkness has 248 pages, due entirely to the fact that I was constantly flicking to the last page, hoping that the numbers had blurred and metamorphosed into a much, much, much smaller one. Yes, it turns out that my brave leap into the world of Gethen was not, as I had hoped, rewarded.

The novel is in itself is based around the fascinating concept of an entirely single sexed society; despite it being written in the late 1960s I think that in a way it is almost topical, because of the drive for more equality within gender today. Although, this book (as far as I am aware) is not written as a response to gender issues in the 20th Century, it is an unusual and under-explored idea that I was excited to read more about. Thus, I bought it.

Yet strangely enough, even though the single sexed society aspect was a clear theme in the book, it was almost pushed out of the spotlight which disappointed me. I would much have preferred it if more was written about it, because granted that although novels should not be theme-driven, I was disappointed about how LeGuin neglected to further explore this rare idea. Part of this idea was destroyed due to LeGuin having everyone addressed with the male possessive pronoun so that one automatically assumes it is a male-only society, not a neutral one as LeGuin attempted to illustrate. To add to that, I feel that it, or some other neuter pronoun would have been more suitable, so that the reader does not receive the impression of one sex being more dominant than the other in these world.

An aspect I enjoyed in the book was that there were multiple perspectives; in the first half of the book it was that of Genly Ai, whilst littered chapters were ancient stories that held a certain relevance to the rest of the novel. Then, for the second half, it was predominantly Genly Ai’s perspective (again) with several chapters from the viewpoint of Estraven. This definitely improved the reading of the novel because the two characters, whilst being physically contrasting (Genly Ai is an envoy sent from Ekumen to persuade Orgota, Karhide and the other countries on that planet, to agree to a trade agreement, whilst Estraven is a native to the planet, and therefore initially thought of Genly as an alien), they are even more so mentally and therefore it was refreshing to notice a change in style in the narrative.

Incontestably, the multiple viewpoints was a relief because of the dry content. It was so dry it was desert with only infrequent adjectives to relive the my stultified brain; thankfully those rare stylistic devices were beautiful, creating incredible imagery. Why then, could there not be more of them? Honestly, did LeGuin’s editor set her a limit? Anyway, I was frequently checking how many pages I had left (248!) and willing the whole thing to be finished. The fist part of the novel was definitely the most interesting, and at that point it wasn’t that insufferable. At times, dare I say it, I even enjoyed it, but then Ai gets rescued from that farm, and they start that trek through the snow. Until the very end, a very large proportion of the novel is merely “It’s snowy and hard to pull the sledge.” Up until that point it was going so well, so to see the death of such a strong, young plot was heart-breaking. And I had to suffer the consequences in order to be fully qualified to write this review. Needless to say, I was unbelievably satisfied to be finished with the novel.

Another reason I believe I had a lack in interest generally was because the protagonist was generally weak and was difficult to relate to (except if you suffer from the cold badly). Genly Ai, admittedly, was a stranger on the planet, but there was a gaping hole, charred around the edges perhaps, where tales of his past should have been.

The same issue is associated in my mind with Estraven. The fact he lives on an alien planet is irrelevant. He is a dull, boring character and the most exciting thing that has happened to him his whole life is being exiled, which is poor if you happened to be the prime minister. I was looking forward to some jovial anecdotes about his time in residency but, as a wise man once said, some things just aren’t meant to be. (Spoiler!) I sense that the ending should have been emotional, but when Estraven got shot down, I didn’t even feel a pang of remorse or sadness.

Obviously, I am not an original Science Fiction fan, so there may be those raving about The Left Hand of Darkness further afield, but that was my just opinion. I would recommend this if you are looking for something a bit interesting, and have a lot of time on your hands, (because if you only have several hours a week, this isn’t what I think you’d want to be spend it reading), but if you are on holiday and are open minded enough to endure a new experience, who knows? Perhaps you’ll like it much more than I did… all 248 pages.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

An astounding début novel that delves beyond the cliché college drama into a much darker, sinister reflection on life of those lounging in the exclusive corners of society.

Richard studies at Hampden college, and after arriving, on a whim, takes a sudden change in subject into Classics. Soon he is accepted into an eccentric and elite group that seem, for their unbelievable intelligence, completely oblivious to contemporary life. Before long Richard’s life is tangled with that of his newly made friends, a diverse and bizarre group, whom he seeks to understand. Yet the façade slowly gets worn down and whilst he’s roaming in an ordinary life, he does he realise that not only is he entangled in this cobweb of lives; he’s being plunged into a profoundly different world.

This is an incredible novel; firstly the meticulous level of detail applied to the plot stands out. Each character, sentence, sub-plot has been applied into the novel with such a pedantic level of care yet it does not draw any attention away from the powerful and compelling plot. This novel is undoubtedly a thriller; but that does mean everything happens at hyper speed. Despite the plot occasionally drifting along a river of tension, it was as equally compelling as when the most important action happened. This is not because of ill-use of writing techniques; Tartt manipulated language so that even when the pace is slow (predominately the first bit of the novel) it is still interesting to read. However, this was not achieved through the use of hyperbole but because of the reader’s care for the quirky characters.
I love the characters that are in the novel; they are far from the bland, dull eyed students that plod through the ink of many college novels today. It took Tartt 8 years to write this novel; it is clear that a portion of this went into painstaking character history. There is a shrouded history for each person, and it is only rarely that we can peer through the smoke and grab the meagre pieces of information given to us. Enough to survive on, but I’m always wanting more.

Do not be put off by the number of pages; it is worth the commitment. I think you will be hard pressed to find another thriller quite like this; it’s in a league of it’s own.

 

 

March-The Beach by Alex Garland

The Beach, I was promised, is a page-turner. They were right; it is.

the beach

It was a thriller from the first page, and was written in such a way that I was whisked into Richard’s fascinating world before long. Honestly, I could almost feel the heat of the Sun rays on my face, and the water lapping around my waist, which can only be a credit to Garland’s incredible writing skills. To add to that, it was easy to digest information because  of the short 3-4 page vignettes, which subsequently lured you into the trap of saying, oh just one more! And because of this and more, it is a slick, compulsive, page-turner. I simply loved it.

Then again, maybe not. It is a classic story about paradise lost. In fact, I thought that it would be very similar to Lord of The Flies. Because, you know, they both take place on a beach, and they are both about a paradise worth saving. (I am sure I could write a lengthy essay on their similarities and contrast, so I will keep it brief). But looking back on it now, they are worlds apart. Certainly, the Lord of Flies may be lurking in the novel’s shadow, but the Beach is written with a refreshing sense of the reality that the other novel, perhaps outdated now (it was first published in 1954), lacks. The Beach stands alone.

As for the plot. Fabulous. Richard arrives in Bangkok. Just an ordinary amicable guy who finds a kick in travelling. Except, he has a hunger for more. A hunger to explore more than the beaten path, to go beyond the boundaries. So when he is given a chance to go to a paradise, to start again, live a new life isolated from this busy, noisy world, he takes it. Why wouldn’t he? And it turns out that this thriving utopia is waiting for him. Yet how long can this hidden paradise survive on Earth?
But it was terrifying, dark and sinister too… Although it doesn’t plunge straight into a pit of black at the very beginning; there was always a constant upbeat mood to the novel, despite lots of clearly “interesting” events taking place. For a novel to start off with a man slitting his wrists and to not have a dark cloud looming over all the over pages is miraculous in itself. Indeed, throughout the entire novel there are hints of darkness, yet they always seemed to  get lost the beach life.

Richard is a flawed, adventurous traveller and the novel is written from his point of view. I liked him and felt that although some of actions were undeniably questionable, you could see why he did them. Interestingly, Garland doesn’t offer the reader elaborate background story about the characters; who their siblings were and what their Year 3 class thought of their acting at the nativity play. And, truth be told, I never felt an urge to find out more about the characters’ history, not because they were dull, but because everything I needed to know was presented to me. They all felt real enough for me.

I basically devoured this book. It was gripping until the very end, and thankfully, when I reached the end, I was satisfied. So go for it. You might regret it if you don’t.