The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

The Boy Who Drew MonstersTitle: The Boy Who Drew Monsters
Author: Keith Donohue
Published: 7 October 2014
Publisher: Picador
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror, fantasy
Rating: 4/10

Minor spoilers, but I wouldn’t recommend this anyway.

Tim and Holly Keenan live in their dream house by the sea, but the dream was lost when it became clear that their beloved son Jack Peter (aka Jack, J.P. or Jip) was unnervingly different from other children. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and the difficulty of taking care of their son began to take its toll on the couple. Then, three years ago, Jack and his best friend Nick almost drowned while swimming, and the trauma caused Jack to develop acute agoraphobia. Since then he’s been an ‘inside boy’ – he never plays outside, doesn’t go to school, and has to be swaddled in blankets to avoid panic attacks on trips to the psychiatrist or the doctor.

Holly is convinced that her son’s condition is getting worse, particularly after she touches him without warning and, shocked, he punches her in the face. Afraid of what he might do when he’s older and stronger, she tries discussing the problem with Tim, but he is convinced that Jack is getting better, so he doesn’t want to consider increased medication or placing their son in a mental institution.

In the meantime, Jack starts drawing the monsters he sees – at which point his parents and his best friend Nick start to see them too. His father sees grotesque, paper-white naked man out in the snow on a freezing night. His mother hears banging at the doors and windows as something tries to get into the house. Nick opens his closet door one night and sees the drowned bodies of his parents hanging there – just before they’re due to go on a Caribbean cruise.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters aims to be a quietly unnerving literary horror novel – Jack Peter is a boy who other people find monstrous and scary, and that conflict is externalised with the appearance of real monsters that threaten his family and his best friend. But the whole thing is very poorly executed and fails to be either a scary horror novel or a heartfelt domestic drama.

The plot moves at a glacial pace, when it moves at all. The author sets up the supernatural experiences – sightings of the naked white man for Tim; an intruder banging on the windows for Holly – and then cycles through those and a few other random events for most of the novel without elaborating on anything. The spaces in between are filled with the ebb and flow of everyday life – getting up in the morning, taking a shower/bath, eating breakfast, doing stuff, eating lunch, doing more stuff, eating dinner, going to bed etc. Holly goes to work, Tim stays home or runs errands, Nick comes over to play, Jack draws. It’s frightfully tedious.

Tim, Holly and Nick all fail to figure out what’s going on until the very end. For some reason, Tim and Holly both doubt each other’s accounts of weird experiences, even though they’re going through something similar. Jack has drawn many pictures of the naked white man, so he obviously knows something about it, but Tim never sees the pictures, even though he’s home most of the day. Holly does some investigating when she sees a striking painting of a shipwreck that happened right on the shore where they live, and starts digging up information on the victims and theories about ghosts. Sounds promising, but it turns out to have NOTHING to do with the plot. It’s little more than a red herring that gets an alarming amount of space on the page only to be cast aside for the climax.

There’s actually a hell of a lot that goes to waste in this story. Holly starts going to church and speaking to the priest about Jack, but this is just a distraction. The priest’s housekeeper is an old Japanese woman who also has Asperger’s (although it doesn’t show) and offers some hope of getting through to Jack, while giving Holly some interesting ideas about different kinds of Japanese ghosts. This, too, is mostly pointless.

At the beginning, Tim checks up on one of the holiday homes he oversees for rich clients, and starts feeling sorry for himself because he doesn’t have any money. Sounds like money would be an issue, but it’s total bullshit and is never mentioned again. After all, Tim and Holly Keenan are living in a dream house by the sea. It’s large, comfortable, and heated for the icy winter months. They have two cars, drink wine at dinner, and enjoy indulgent holiday traditions. If they have ‘problems’ with money, it’s only that they’re not millionaires with a holiday home, and are forced to spend some of their disposable income on Jack’s meds.

The only thing that seemed worthwhile in the development of the story was the way the tensions between the characters were revealed through day-to-day interactions and flashbacks. Tim and Holly were living their dream until Jack ruined it. They were best friends with Nick’s parents until infidelity marred that relationship. The Keenans frequently compare Nick with Jack Peter, longing for the son they expected but will never have. You can’t help but wonder why Nick maintains his friendship with Jack Peter and does so much to accommodate him, especially once you start to see how frustrated and resentful he is around Jack. And Jack is an incredibly difficult person to have as a friend – selfish, erratic, cold, even cruel.

Unfortunately, the character dynamics aren’t nearly enough to carry this novel and none of the characters are particularly interesting or likeable on their own. With almost nothing to move the plot forward, it lurches slowly towards a sudden, half-baked climax. Characters who didn’t have a clue what was going on figure it out all at once in a disappointing reveal that many readers will no doubt have predicted long before. Worse, this reveal doesn’t make much sense, so we’re hardly any better off than we were at the beginning.

Only at the very end is there something really good – a grotesque twist that almost made me increase my rating. But no, when I thought about it, that twist didn’t help, because it’s not something that was properly set up and developed throughout the novel. It’s the kind of thing that should have informed the entire story, and deeply affected key characters, so that when you look back you finally understand what was really going on and see everything in a different light. Instead, it’s more like a throwaway idea. It’s great, and it gives the reader a shock, but it’s just tacked on to the end of a tedious, badly structured, poorly written book. Give this book a miss.

Winners! – Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

And the winners of the two copies of Revenge by Yoko Ogawa are:

Bontle (international) and Widdershins (USA/Canada)!

Congratulations guys, your prizes will be on their way to you soon 🙂 Thanks again to Picador for sponsoring a giveaway, and to everyone who entered. I hope you’ll get another chance to read Ogawa’s work.

Review and Giveaway of Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge by Yoko IgawaTitle: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Author: Yoko Ogawa
Published: 
29 January 2013
Pubisher: Picador
Genre: 
literary fiction, short stories
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

I googled a bit of information on Yoko Ogawa when I started writing this review, and I was impressed but not too surprised to learn that she has won every major Japanese literary award and has published over twenty works of fiction and non-fiction. Revenge undoubtedly showcases the skills of a talented, experienced author. When I read “Afternoon at the Bakery”, the first of the “Eleven Dark Tales” in this collection, I was stunned. It’s a devastating kind of story, like many of the stories here – very calm and quiet, with sudden stabs of shock and pain, like a surgical knife slid quickly but gently into the heart of an unsuspecting victim. A simple narrative draws you in – one sunny afternoon, a woman walks to the bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday. For some reason, the shop is empty – there are no customers, and no one behind the counter. The woman is not in a rush, so she sits down to wait for the pastry chef. Soon, another woman comes in, and they make small talk. “How old is [your son]?” the second woman asks. The first woman replies with this:

Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.

She tells us about her son’s death twelve years ago, and how she kept the strawberry shortcake they were meant to share one his birthday and watched it rot. When her husband told her to throw it out, she react violently:

I threw it in his face. Mold and crumbs covered his hair and his cheeks, and a terrible smell filled the room. It was like breathing in death.

I fell in love with Ogawa’s writing in this story. I know it’s translated, but it’s still superb – elegant and hypnotic, with details that tease your senses (I’m thinking of the mention of vanilla, strawberries, cream and the warmth of birthday-candle flames) or cut right into your heart and lungs. It’s the kind of thing that makes you pause to consider or savour what you’ve just read.

“Afternoon at the Bakery” remained my favourite Revenge story (I think I got attached, since it was the first), but with such a wonderful writing style, the others certainly did not disappoint. Ogawa’s great talent, it seems, lies in her absolutely exquisite details and the skilful ways in which she uses them. Most of the stories have rather odd plots. In “Old Mrs J”, the creepy old landlady of an apartment complex finds hand-shaped carrots growing in her vegetable garden. In “Sewing for the Heart” a woman asks a specialist bag maker to sew a bag for her heart, which is particularly delicate because it beats outside of her body. In “Welcome to the Museum of Torture”, a young woman takes a walk after her boyfriend leaves her, and ends up going on a tour through a museum of torture, imagining how she might use some of the devices on her boyfriend.

Besides the plots, there are many beautiful, quaint, tragic or bizarre details within the stories. In “Fruit Juice”, the narrator describes the way that the events of the story he just related “sank into a hole at the bottom of my sea of memories” giving the reader a vague sense that he’s lost something important but inexplicable. Another character describes a woman’s voice as having “an impressive coldness to it – I could almost imagine its tone freezing my ear drum”.

But the most impressive details are the ones that can’t really be quoted and are difficult to write about because they are scattered within and across stories, linking characters and tales, reminding us of sinister things, exposing eerie truths, or revealing the conclusions to earlier stories that ended ambiguously. The strawberry shortcake and the bakery from the first story are mentioned in a later narrative, and the reminder gives an ominous feel to the current tale. We learn about a character’s murder in one story, and when people are looking for him or mention him in later stories we recall why he was killed and the gruesome way in which he died. There are many elements of horror, entwined with the drama unfolding between the characters.

With these tiny but memorable details, Ogawa delicately links lives and stories, creating an unusual kind of novel composed of separate tales. It’s an interesting form; my only problem with it is that one or two of the stories are a bit dull, and seem to be there largely to provide links for others. But for the most part it works beautifully. Although most of the characters never meet each other, the events and artefacts of their lives join them and form a coherent whole for the reader.  There is also one notable recurring character – an obscure writer – who appears in several of the stories. We learn that she has actually written some of them, although whether we read her versions or the real-life events on which they are based is unclear. The book is enjoyably vague in that way – it’s not the kind of novel that offers answers or meaning or easy conclusions; instead it taunts and delights you with its intricacies. Ogawa has said that “one of the fundamental values of fiction is its power to express the inexplicable and the absurd” (Q&A with Yoko Ogawa) and I think that’s exactly what she does with Revenge.

Another notable thing is that almost all the characters are unnamed (a trademark of Ogawa’s according to the Q&A just referenced). The only characters with anything akin to names are Mrs J and Dr Y, and both are secondary characters. Every story is intimately narrated in the first person, and it can sometimes be unclear how old the “I” is or whether they are male or female. The location is completely anonymous too – there are no place names, no landmarks; the novel could be set in any well-developed country. The only suggestion that it might take place in Japan, where Ogawa lives, is that characters sometimes bow to each other in greeting or thanks.

Unencumbered by these specifics, the novel seems almost ghostly, and reading it can be a rather strange and hypnotic experience. But I like it a lot. It’s so well done, that names and places aren’t necessary. It’s a pensive rather than exciting read, but it’s the kind of book that can teach you to appreciate the qualities of good writing, particularly the way writers can manipulate certain elements of a story in order to leave an impression on the reader. Most authors can only dream of writing something this evocative, or writing a sentence or crafting an image that etches itself into the read. Yoko Ogawa is one of the few who can, and I’m glad to have found her.

 

Giveaway

Now, I my thoughts on Revenge have convinced you that it’s worth reading because I’m giving away two copies on Violin in a Void. One has been generously provided by Gabrielle Gantz at Picador, for residents of the USA and Canada. And since I don’t want everyone else to miss out on a chance to get a copy, I am providing one as well, via Book Depository. Here are the details:

  • To enter, follow me via email (sign-up on the homepage), WordPress or Twitter (@Violin_InA_Void) and leave a comment on this post. Be sure to mention whether you’re from the USA/Canada or the rest of the world.
  • The USA/Canada copy will be sent to the USA/Canada winner by Picador.
  • I will be sending a copy to the second winner via Book Depository, so you are only eligible if they ship to your country.
  • This giveaway will last for two weeks and ends at midnight (GMT+3) on 12 February.
  • I will choose the winners using random.org, and contact them on 13 February for their addresses. Both winners will be announced in a blog post shortly thereafter.

Thanks so much to Picador for sponsoring a giveaway, and good luck to all those who enter!

Up for Review: Japanese Novels

In the past two or three months, I’ve requested (and been lucky enough to receive) a couple of novels by Japanese authors, so I decided to do a group Up for Review post. All these novels are in different genres – the first is a literary novel told in short stories, with a touch of horror; the second is surreal sci fi; and the last one reinvents a Japanese creation myth. Each of these authors have several other books that have been translated into English, and I’m hoping that these three will open up a whole new world of literature for me.

Revenge by Yoko Igawa

 

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (Picador)

I’ve already read this one, and I think it’s fantastic. I’ll be posting my review soon, along with a giveaway, so keep an eye out!

NetGalley blurb:

Sinister forces draw together a cast of desperate characters in this eerie and absorbing novel from Yoko Ogawa.

 

An aspiring writer moves into a new apartment and discovers that her landlady has murdered her husband. Years later, the writer’s stepson reflects upon his stepmother and the strange stories she used to tell him. Meanwhile, a surgeon’s lover vows to kill him if he does not leave his wife. Before she can follow-through on her crime of passion, though, the surgeon will cross paths with another remarkable woman, a cabaret singer whose heart beats delicately outside of her body. But when the surgeon promises to repair her condition, he sparks the jealousy of another man who would like to preserve the heart in a custom tailored bag. Murderers and mourners, mothers and children, lovers and innocent bystanders—their fates converge in a darkly beautiful web that they are each powerless to escape.

Macabre, fiendishly clever, and with a touch of the supernatural, Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge creates a haunting tapestry of death—and the afterlife of the living.

 

Revenge was first published in 1998. This edition will be published on 29 January 2013 by Picador.

Links:
Goodreads
Buy a copy: The Book Depository I Amazon I Exclusive Books
On the publisher’s website
About the author: Wikipedia I Goodreads

 

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui (Vintage Books)
According to Wikipedia, Yasutaka Tsutsui is one of Japan’s most famous sf writers.

NetGalley blurb:

Widely acknowledged as Yasutaka Tsutsui’s masterpiece, Paprika unites his surreal, quirky imagination with a mind-bending narrative about a psychiatric institute that has developed the technology to invade people’s dreams.

 

When prototype model of a dream-invading device go missing at the Institute for Psychiatric Research, it transpires that someone is using them to drive people insane. Threatened both personally and professionally, brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba has to journey into the world of fantasy to fight her mysterious opponents. As she delves ever deeper into the imagination, the borderline between dream and reality becomes increasingly blurred, and nightmares begin to leak into the everyday realm. The scene is set for a final showdown between the dream detective and her enemies, with the subconscious as their battleground, and the future of the waking world at stake.

 

Paprika was first published in 1993. This edition will be published on 05 February 2013 by Picador.

Links:
Goodreads
Buy a copy: The Book Depository I Amazon I Exclusive Books
On the publisher’s website
About the author: Wikipedia I Goodreads I Website (Japanese) I Twitter (Japanese)

The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo KirinoThe Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino (Grove Press)

This is another book in Canongate Myth series

NetGalley blurb:

“A spectacle that includes multiple layers of opposing forces: life and death, love and hate . . . The author uniquely depicts an unruly mythological world.” —Shincho Magazine

In a place like no other, on a mystical island in the shape of tear drop, two sisters are born into a family of oracles. Beautiful Kamikuu is admired far and wide; Namima, small but headstrong, learns to live in her older sister’s shadow. On her sixth birthday, Kamikuu is chosen as the next Oracle, while Namima is forced to become the goddess of darkness, destined to spend eternity guiding the spirits of the deceased to the underworld. As the sisters serve opposite fates, so begins a journey that will take Namima from her first experience of love to scalding betrayal. Caught in an elaborate web of deceit, she travels from the land of the living to the Realm of the Dead and back again seeking vengeance and ultimate closure.

Natsuo Kirino turns her hand to an exquisitely dark tale, masterfully reinventing the Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanaki. A fantastical tour-de-force, The Goddess Chronicle is a tale as old as the earth about sibling rivalry, ferocious love, and bittersweet revenge.

 

The Goddess Chronicle was first published in 2008. This edition will be published on 6 August 2013 by Grove Press.

Links:
Goodreads
Buy a copy: The Book Depository I Amazon I Exclusive Books
On the publisher’s website
About the author: Wikipedia I Goodreads I Website

Review of Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Title: Falling Man
Author: Don DeLillo
Published: first published in 2007; my edition published in 2011
Publisher: Picador
Genre: drama, literary fiction
Source: review copy from the publisher via Pan Macmillan South Africa
Rating: 4/10

On September 11 2001, Keith is caught in the chaos of the falling towers. He wanders dazed and injured, carrying a briefcase that doesn’t belong to him. A helpful stranger picks him up, but instead of asking to be taken to the hospital, Keith goes to Lianne, his estranged wife. She opens the door to find him covered in ash and blood with slivers of glass in his face, and that’s how he comes back into her life.

Because his apartment was close to the towers and is too unstable to live in, Keith moves in with Lianne and their young son Justin. His return to family life and the tragedy of the planes has subtle but profound effects on the couple and those close to them. No politics intrude on this story. Rather, you’ll find a very intimate study of the emotional and psychological effects of 9/11 on a handful of people whose lives were affected by the event.

The attacks have thrust them into a different existence. In the first few pages, when Keith is wandering through the chaos immediately after the attacks, DeLillo describes the atmosphere as “not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night”. Keith’s sense of the world is reduced to “figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space, and the stink of fuel and fire, and the steady rip of sirens in the air”. Time is frequently described in reference to the attack, eg. “three days after the planes” (8).

Keith does not seem traumatised by his experience. Instead, it acts as a catalyst for a personality change. He starts to take his life more seriously, and become more self-aware.

“It was Keith as well who was going slow, easing inward. He used to want to fly out of self-awareness, day and night, a body in raw motion. Now he finds himself drifting into spells of reflection, thinking not in clear units, hard and linked, but only absorbing what comes, drawing things out of time and memory and into some dim space that bears his collected experience.” (66)

Lianne actually seems more shaken than Keith, more needy. She runs a weekly group therapy session in which she facilitates writing exercises for patients, but she comes to rely on the sessions for personal reasons. She’s also a freelance editor, and when she learns of a book that predicted the attacks, she wants very badly to edit it, even though she’s warned that the book is extremely dull and the job will feel like a death sentence. At home, Lianne becomes deeply disturbed by a neighbour playing Middle Eastern music. She finds it incredibly offensive in the wake of the attacks, and eventually reacts with violence.

It’s Lianne who sees The Falling Man, a performance artist who suspends himself from buildings, mimicking the pose of the famous figure that was photographed falling from one of the towers, choosing that death over burning. She struggles to understand his motives, as does everyone else. Is he a “Heartless Exhibitionist or Brave New Chronicler of the Age of Terror” (220)?

Keith, too, seems like a ‘falling man’. When the north tower fell, Keith felt as if “[t]hat was him, coming down” (5). Discussing his renewed marriage to Lianne and the way their relationship seems easier and calmer now, he remarks that they’re “ready to sink into our little lives’ (75). As with the performance artist and the man who leapt from the burning tower, this concept of falling isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If Keith was floating aimlessly before – no long-term relationship, a job he was about to lose and didn’t care about anyway – then the attack has brought him down to earth, into a more stable existence as a husband and father.

He seems ready to accept the marriage and family life and he failed in before. Keith had been a serial adulterer, and his marriage to Lianne disintegrated in constant fighting. Lianne’s mother Nina says that “Keith wanted a woman who’d regret what she did with him” (12) and is critical of Lianne’s decision to marry the man. If Nina was right before, it seems that the attacks will require her to form a new opinion of her son-in-law.

While the attacks have a unifying effect on Keith and Lianne’s relationship, it causes friction between Nina and her long-time lover Martin. They often argue about the motivations about the attacks, usually from a religious perspective, bringing the novel as close to politics as it ever comes. I was surprised to find that the story included the perspective of a terrorist named Hammad, who is on one of the planes. His narrative goes back to his training and eventually brings us back to the day of the attacks. There’s a strong sense that the terrorists’ extremism is somehow fake, forced. The trainee-terrorists are told to grow beards, Hammad reflects on the way this has affected his sex life and at one point leaves a meeting to jerk off in the bathroom.

 

One the most remarkable features of the novel is the way DeLillo refrains from describing the emotions of his characters, their facial expressions or even from using exclamation marks. It’s incredibly minimalist, using mostly dialogue and detail, rather than adverbs and adjectives, to show us who the characters are and how they relate to one another. For example, we see the tension between Lianne and Nina in Nina’s clipped comments about Keith, the way Lianne later gets back at her mother by interrogating her about Martin, and the way the women often talk over each other, not quite responding to what was said before.

I appreciate this subtlety, to an extent. I often wish that writers could be more crafty by using actions, dialogue and small revealing details to do the work of showing who their characters are and what they feel, rather than simply stating that they’re speaking angrily or sarcastically, that they’re smiling or frowning. It makes emotions and personalities feel organic, rather than attached like cut-out clothes on cardboard dolls. It’s much a much harder way of writing of course, but if properly done, the effects can be infinitely more powerful for the reader.

DeLillo’s skill in writing this way is often felt, but unfortunately the emotion in Falling Man mostly ceases to be subtle and becomes simply flat and boring. If I pictured the characters I inevitably saw blank-faced people standing around, barely moving, speaking in monotones, never looking at each other. They seemed inhuman, just cardboard cut-outs wearing words. I tried instead to take an interactive approach and invest them with the kind of emotion that I thought they should be feeling. I wondered if perhaps this was DeLillo’s intention – to create an emotional space that the reader would then fill. His way of addressing the myriad complex reactions to the victims of 9/11, perhaps. If that’s the case, then this book might be better appreciated by those who have strong feelings about attacks, or who have some personal connection to it. And that’s not me. I hadn’t heard of the World Trade Centre until the towers fell. I was in grade 11 and studying for a major biology exam, so although I heard the news I was so preoccupied I didn’t see a picture until the next day. If it wasn’t such a dramatic kind of event and if it hadn’t happened to the USA, it might simply have faded to a vague memory.  Now, I know of it as a great tragedy, but one among many other great tragedies in our greedy, violent world, some of which are far worse but often less dramatic or less documented.

The result is that Falling Man evoked very little in me and I found most of it hopelessly boring. I kept thinking that there must be more interesting, evocative stories to tell about the 9/11 attacks, and much more interesting characters to tell it. Besides the novel’s lack of energy, I was also dragged down by its many minute details. Such details can be vivid, revealing and haunting, but they can also be banal, and in this case it was almost always the latter. Keith exercising his injured wrist, the different ways in which he played poker with his buddies, Keith and Lianne worrying about their son – I could not have cared less.

I gave Falling Man four stars for the bits of exquisitely elegant writing, but I could give it no more because reading it was an experience in emotional lethargy, with no real story or insights to give the novel a sense of life. If that was intentional, fine, but then it’s intended for someone else.