A Severed Wasp by Madeleine L’Engle

Wisdom, happiness, freedom and lots of other things are so desirable that we pursue them purely for themselves, though they are only attainable as means or by-products of our other, less tempting goals. They are like unexpected guests who come and go and never stay for long. The more one is trying to take hold of them, the more elusive and annoyed they become. So, when wisdom is the main goal in the story (or life) and everything else is subdued to it, there is a chance of converting a novel into sermon and excitement into dullness, by leaving out the alluring fuel that is made of inner conflicts, trials, transforming dialogue between the characters and their circumstances. To a moderate degree this happened to A Severed Wasp.

A retired piano virtuoso returns to her birthplace to find solace, but bumps into an old acquaintance that needs her help. Between warm baths, herbal tea rituals and neck massages she finds the time to heat up her experience-made pot and pour the wisdom among the thirsty gathering that loiters around. She becomes a sage for the church congregation, a mentor to their prodigal children and a prosecutor of the mischief among them. Former pop star, reminiscences of Nazism and homophobic calls mingle in.

What makes the plot bizarre is the fact that it is a sequel to Little rain, a simple novel written around fifty years earlier, that resembles any other coming-of-age book. The author and protagonist surely have matured; the youthful determination and sincerity that made the prequel somewhat bearable have been replaced with stiffness and versatile plot twists that the protagonist, like god, straightens out with her magical touch. The old age seems to smooth the strains and edges like rivers do with pebbles. Unfortunately, the fun is not so much in the final result as it is in transformation.

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Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

As in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the story is told through the lenses of a certain mental condition that only few have access to. In this case, it is Alzheimer’s that disables the protagonist from reaching what her mind has set before her: solving a disappearance of a beloved one. But whilst providing an old lady with countless obstacles, the disease does more; through forceful emergence of what was trying to be forgotten, it opens the sheer possibility of the task. The past takes lead and shapes present, or what it needs from it, in tailored patterns.

The book shows credibly how losing a hold over continuity of the present necessarily leads to strengthening of an inner world and enforcing its persistence to act out regardless of everyday barriers that slow down a healthy person: fears, others, physical obstacles. The gap between inner and outer, past and present, is sometimes lost in the narrative, but the author reinstates them with the help of a mystery, which gives the protagonist some focus and unity. What would otherwise remain dispersed and hidden from the outer world, is in this way made sensible and given a logic of its own.

As in The Curious Incident as well, it seems that only a peculiar state of mind is not itself enough to make the story interesting. The mysterious hook is needed to lighten up the matter and show the disease in broad spectrum. The tool with which both stories are told is similar to the psychological test where you need to make a castle out of a sheet of paper – what is assessed isn’t the final result itself as much as all the characteristics that one reveals unconsciously by focusing on the result: interactions with others, forethought or rashness, working under time limit etc. So, if all you care about mysteries is who’s done it, you’ll probably be disappointed by the book’s predictability, but that was never really the point.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

To live as a detection device in the middle of a busy street is a legitimate choice – and a tempting one to make. To observe the world as it leisurely unfolds without your interference means to avoid the difficulties of constant selection. If you are just a passive receiver, all bits of the ceaseless flow of information fit your narrative; there’s no need to shape them in accordance with your purposes. In exchange for cohesion you get all kinds of bypassing, unfinished, often interesting stories. In other words, you get an outline.

Since nowadays this kind of existence is often imposed on us with or without our wanting it and we are forced to let a lot of material pass us, untouched and unattached, I was intrigued to read a book with aspirations towards exploring the living conditions of such complete surrender. But the main character in this novel, a sponge that soaks everything and gives away only the least of herself, encounters, in accidental meetings with others, a strange amount of coherent and completed life stories. Though there are plenty of these others, who can’t wait to share their biographies with a listener that never interrupts, I was able to decipher only one voice. Instead of diversity, otherness and chaos, I got the author’s attempt to write something, anything.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

Being a part of any community, let it be marriage, family or close circle of friends, does not entail an alignment of thoughts and values – however it often feels this way and forms the basis for connecting. Everyone knows an unsettling feeling that a certain kind of recognition brings, when all of a sudden your world becomes more parallel than related to that of others and an abyss opens to show you that an intersection of beliefs is made of so completely different directions that three dimensions are suddenly not enough to describe the space we live in.

This was the feeling of reading this book. After an initial story about a family that is at least close if not happy, where the joys and tragedies are described from a chronological and personal distance, it makes an abrupt switch to the consequences of a dark, previously unmentioned family secret, that weaves its web on generations to come. From an idealistic family portrait we are dragged into the personal lives of traumas and their tangible realities. The fundamental loneliness of each of us, that is never felt deeper than in a company of deft listeners, is shown within all its reach – to the point I wondered if perhaps it is not the author’s fault to make the threads that link solipsistic planets so little known. As in life, I was left to fill the blanks myself.

Signs of Life by Anna Raverat

A relationship that one can have with a wooden fence is in many ways similar to the emotional landscape portrayed in this book. A breakup following an affair was described with as much sensitivity. On the surface, a wooden fence looks meaningful. It gives one a sense of security as it separates one’s place from the rest of the world; it provides a sense of satisfaction when is colored nice and it can even help one’s flowers to grow. It also resembles some of the possible dangers that a relationship can encounter. It breaks when one leans too harshly and it always has an open space or gates, so that one can exit without too many difficulties.

But relationships between people are normally more diverse; they aren’t just there waiting for someone to attach whimsical meanings to them and they aren’t the servants of a mere convenience. They need some action and reciprocity to happen, and some motives to define their course. Considering an abundance of works with similar themes, where the hardships of relationships are shown in all their glory (Kureishi’s Intimacy, Ferantte’s The Days of Abandonment etc.), I mistakenly believed that the protagonist’s search of finding a purpose in a mess of her affairs will eventually bear some fruit, but every new page proved me wrong and has drawn me further away from discovering it.

I can’t blame the components the author has used. Youth, childless attachment and unfounded obsessions are fragile enough to work with and there’s a lot of effort needed to prove their significance. But it can be done (at least Shakespeare’s done it!), so something else has to be responsible for this novel’s lack of credibility and force. It was as if the author was convinced that twisting and turning the plot will bring on a complexity by itself. That didn’t happen and even the promise of a final hook, that was all that held me on, turned out to be as superficial as the rest of the book.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

In a noble English household, where the banquets are prepared by loyal servants and consumed by mighty statesmen, a butler with his reminiscences of the war period serves us the essence of servitude and its quiet assistance to history. In a nice, neat world that he inhabits, the schedule is set and its boundaries established; his freedom ends where his master’s expectations begin. The unpredictable is for others to handle and the fog surrounding decisions is dispersed without his helping hand. Within these simple rules, life can easily be fulfilled.

Like silver and plates, everything has its order and all is just a matter of keeping its position. Diminished display of thoughts is a job requirement, in his case internalized to such a degree that no human interaction can be but a useful tool for improving professional skills. Only little contentments of his work achievements constitute his reality, leaving behind all vagueness and sorrow. In a dull, complacent state like this, there is no room for doubt, changes of course and no room for freedom.

I don’t recall many so pleasant and readable metaphors for the limitations of mind. Even if one chooses to obey orders to make a living (as we all do to some extent) and finds certain joy in being a shadow of another one’s willpower, he is still not excused of responsibility. Not making your own decisions is quite similar to making them. Putting general morals concerning others aside, the saddest result were the butler’s own missed opportunities.