I loved this book and the really great gentlemanly voice of its narrator. The book captures a man, a voice, a view that was a moment captured in time amongst the world changing around him. This is a great study of tone and style above all, and the ending was both beautifully surprising and fitting. (spoiler alert!) The aristocratic Russian who is under house arrest for so many years after the revolution finally breaks free. And where is the one place he longs to go to as an old man? Not anywhere free, not anywhere that would move him forward in life and time. Instead, he moves back, returning to his hometown, to his family's old estate, to the place that had defined him for all his childhood, young adulthood, and throughout his exile/imprisonment.
This was the first book by Zadie Smith I've read and I didn't love it as I'd expected to. The characters I found not compelling, the writing clunky at times. And I felt constantly distracted by the too-similar resemblance to Madonna - not in a way that felt revelatory, but in a way that felt a bit shallow. It did, however make me want to watch many YouTube videos of Fred Astaire dancing - the childhood friendship, the love of dance, the hope: these were the beautiful parts. What came after was not so enjoyable. But I suppose that is like a lot of life.
I chose this book as my month's selection for a book club I started with a few friends. I chose it because the group of readers included foreigners, Chinese, and hyphenated folk alike, all working in fields related to writing. I thought for a group of these people living in China and working through language daily, this book might be a good choice.
Lahiri's musings on language and life in Italy, as well as her experience with language in general as an American were all very interesting and lyrical, as expected. Most impressive about this book, though was that it was written in Italian by Lahiri, after she'd lived in Italy for about two years.
Her love of language and her dedication to studying it was so apparent and inspiring throughout the book. It made me want to spend more time studying Chinese myself. I thought so many times while reading this book: if she can do it, why can't I? The book also made me think about priorities, deep accomplishments, and the passage of time. Lahiri dedicated two years of almost full-time study to Italian, in addition to the prior exposure she had of the language over the years. The book made me realize that two years is a drop in the bucket, but if you devote yourself wholly to one thing during that time, you can really go far. The book confirmed my belief that it's better to do one or two things deeply than to do a number of things simultaneously but in a shallow way. It also brought to my attention how important and how impactful it can be to one's life dedicate oneself to language learning.
Like the Vegetarian Festival I saw in Phuket Thailand, this book's name belies something much more violent and warped than I'd originally expected. I knew the book would be about a woman's rebellion from her husband's patriarchy. But it was really a psychological portrait of a woman and the successive traumas she undergoes from childhood to adulthood and the ways she's internalized and later exhibits the devastating impact.
It was so good. Part of what made it so good was its unique structure. Told in three parts by three different narrators who try to get a grasp on one woman's spiral into psychosis. The first is the husband's, the second is the brother in law's, and the third is her older sister's. From the husband's point of view, we see her as a rebellious, or in the extreme, even magical figure. In the second, we understand she is possessed by something, but we don't quite understand it. From the third, only with the deep understanding siblings can have of one another, we realize where the root of her problems came from in her past.
Throughout the book's sections, too, we see also how mental disorder is perceived by the men circling the sick woman: as rebellion, as a personal affront, or as titillating seduction - yes, always about themselves.
I've never been to Sleep No More, but from what I've read about it, I imagine this book is Sleep No More ramped up to the tenth degree.
There were a lot of characters in this book, a lot of imaginative histories and stories woven into the tale of this circus and its performers. But in the end, I felt the foundational plot - a training competition between rival magicians that uses two star crossed lovers as pawns - to be the unbelievable bit in this lovable and credibly strange, eccentric world. I also found the 'normal' humans of the book to be more compelling than the circus performers - they had hopes and dreams and fears and histories, whereas many of the sensual freaks portrayed throughout had nothing but charisma and talent to pull them through the text.
For example, the young boy who runs away with the circus has a family who does not understand him and a sister who is cruel. The clockmaker who designs the clock and who becomes so obsessed with the circus so as to become the leader of a cult of followers seems more endowed with humanity than the contortionist who is throughout referred to as mysterious and tattooed, but whom we only learn at the very end suffered a tragic romantic loss that gave her a purpose within the plot.
So the book became an exercise in imaginative writing, more so than compelling storytelling.