A very happy 2019 to you! I’m starting my posting year with the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.
I fell in love with this book to such an extent that I remember sending H off for a walk into the lovely Corsican maquis on his own so that I could finish it. Tom Wolfe’s potboiler The Bonfire of the Vanities is seen as the quintessential yuppie novel but for me Brightness Falls summed up the folly of the ’80s very much better and with a great deal more humanity. It was the first in a trilogy which continued with The Good Life, a grave disappointment after Brightness Falls, and finished with Bright, Precious, Days which fell somewhere in the middle of the two in literary terms. All three follow Corinne and Russell Calloway.
Corrine and Russell are a glittering New York couple, in love with each other and pursuing successful careers in a world where anything seems possible if you are young, bright and fearless. To their friends, they epitomize the perfect marriage but when Russell becomes caught up in an audacious plan to take over the publishing company in which he is the rising editorial star, things begin to fall apart. The adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere of the deal take its toll on both Russell and Corrine, just as the excesses of the ’80s have taken their toll on many others in New York City, from their close friend Jeff, now in detox, to the homeless crack addicts on every street corner. With the knowledge gained from her job as a stockbroker, Corrine begins to realize that the heady days of the rising Dow must surely come to an end. The reckoning finally comes on 19 October 1987 when the bubble bursts with the Wall Street crash.
I reviewed Bright, Precious, Days in the midst of the 2016 election campaign which seems a world away now. McInerney has said that he has no intention of extending his trilogy into a quartet but I can’t help wondering how Corinne and Russell would be faring under the current regime.
What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?
Those of us who read a lot of fiction have reason to feel a bit smug after The Guardian‘s piece based on research suggesting that reading novels develops empathy. Easy to feel pleased with yourself for doing something which for many of us is an enormous pleasure but I do read fiction to find out about other ways of life, other cultures, other ways of thinking and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake did just that: gave me an insight into both how it feels to leave your country in search of a better life then watch your child embracing a culture which still feels alien to you, and how it feels to be that child. I was delighted, then, to see her new novel shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker.
The Lowland is a much more of political novel then The Namesake. It begins in the years after the 1947 Partition. Two brothers, only fifteen months apart in age, grow up in suburban Calcutta. The eldest, Subhash, is quietly cautious, always keeping a protective eye out for the daring Udayan who looks outwards into the world, yet it is Subhash who leaves to pursue his studies in America in the ’70s while Udayan stays at home becoming increasingly politicised by the corruption, poverty and injustice he sees around him. Letters are intermittent, but Udayan writes with news that he has married Guari only telling his parents after the event. When Udayan is shot for his part in a Naxalite plot, Subhash comes home to find the pregnant Guari living with his parents who barely acknowledge her. Desperate to do the right thing, he marries her taking her back to the States where Bela is born partly filling the chasm left by Udayan’s death but only for Subhash. Theirs is a marriage doomed to failure but Gauri’s abrupt departure, leaving Bela behind, still shocks casting a long shadow over both Bela and Subhash’s future. A sense of loss, of loneliness and isolation, of things left unsaid and undone pervades The Lowland. Lahiri unfolds the story of a family marked by tragedy and its aftermath, quietly revealing the motives and events that lie behind each of their actions in beautiful understated prose so that the unfathomable becomes clear, the abhorrent understandable. It’s a superb novel, remarkable for its compassion – the bond between Bela and Subhash is particularly moving. I can’t imagine a book more deserving of the Man Booker. Fingers firmly crossed.