Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Book Reviews: Frog Music and The History of the Rain

Regular readers (haha) to our blog may have noticed a change in my book reviews. I'm not doing a "What I've Been Reading" for each month, but am posting various reviews along the way. This is mostly because I have now become a "professional reader!" What is that, you may ask. Well, I didn't know either! Basically, I get "ARCs" (advanced reader copies) in return for reviews! So, here are two books (I read them as e-books) that I have read recently. All opinions are my own, although the e-books were free.





Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

When I found out that I had an approval to read an ARC of Frog Music, I was rather embarrassingly excited. I thought Room was a completely captivating book: so horrific and yet believable, a page turner from the beginning. Each characters' voice was distinct, and I also found it very interesting to view most of the central protagonists only through the eyes of another, as is always the case with first person narratives. The difference in Room is that Jack is five - it is such a unique perspective. So, it's safe to say that I started Frog Music with fairly high expectations.

Unfortunately, it didn't exceed my expectations.
It didn't even reach them. Is that because my expectations were just too hard? Not every novel can be a masterpiece, after all.

Frog Music is the story of Blanche, a French woman making her way in San Francisco through dance and prostitution during the nineteenth century. There are two storylines poised at once: before the murder of her friend Jenny, and afterwards. Donoghue has, again, created quite a unique, perspective doing this; plenty of novels have flashbacks but to have two continuous linear narratives occurring at the same time with the same characters is novel. Personally, I'm not sure it was entirely effective.

It's a sort of 'who-dunnit' and the last quarter was pacy, exciting and unexpected. I did really enjoy the home streak. Unfortunately, the rest of the book was a bit of a slog to get through. I actually ended up starting this again twice in the hope it would draw me in more and not be so difficult to read. It didn't work, so I cut my losses and kept going. I'm glad I did, because the ending was enjoyable; however, overall it doesn't seem worth it to read a lengthy novel when the majority of it is unenjoyable. 

Frog Music comes out on March 27th.



History of the Rain – Niall Williams

Where to start? This was a rich, expertly woven novel; each word is weighed up and chosen carefully, so that they flow like the rivers that permeate Williams' narrative.

History of the Rain is told in first person by Ruth Swain, sharing a story she tells whilst bed-ridden in rural Ireland. It is also second person: Ruth addresses the reader directly. It leaves questions: who does she think will be reading it? Is she leaving this for her family, or someone else? Of further interest is that it is not merely her story she is telling; she tells the story of her father, her grand-father, her great grand-father. Now, this makes for an intriguing premise. Ruth is telling stories that she wasn't even alive for, let alone been a witness to. Throughout the novel I was left wondering: how much of this had been reported to her, and how much has her own imagination taken control? The level of detail in many of the scenes is exquisite – but what does this mean? Where does truth end and make believe begin? Williams is asking us to question the validity of the past, of truth, and the sustaining power of stories.

As I have said, the language was beautiful. There are lots of examples of this: on describing her father, Ruth says he is “a bundle of angles”; Ruth's mother's hair is personified as she fights it into submission: “She tousled it loose and it laughed at her, then she tied it up too tight and it felt like a hand had grabbed her from above...” There are many more examples throughout the novel.

I loved Virgil, Ruth's father, his eccentricity and room full of books. There is a real link of empathy between myself as a reader, and Virgil as a character in Ruth's story.

He knew Ahab, he knew Tulkinghorn, he knew Quentin Compson and Sebastian Flyte and Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Bovary and Alyosha... but Virgil Swain did not know anything he could do in County Clare.”

He is out of his depth and, naturally, we feel protective of him. The burgeoning love story between Ruth's parents was my favourite part plot-wise, although it was tinged with sadness.

Plot-wise, I found it a bit of a struggle at the start. It took a long time to get into – I was thoroughly engrossed by the end, but the beginning lacked that page-turning quality. Possibly this was to do with getting used to Williams' style; History of the Rain is a book I am sure will bear reading again and again. For me, however, the beginning was too slow. I also became more used to Williams' meandering narrative; as Ruth herself says “Your narrator, you may already have grasped, is not gifted in matters chronological” - it is not a linear story. As the plot continued, I was more engrossed, although still very conscious of Ruth being the storyteller to events she had never witnessed. I enjoyed that ambiguity of truth, the wondering. In a way, we as readers are like bed-ridden Ruth, caught in a trap of stories and secrets, never knowing where true North is.

Ultimately, the novel had a sad tinge to it. Virgil, Ruth's father, was never able to meet the “Impossible Standard” laid down by his family, and we really feel his anguish over it. We never get to know as much about Ruth as her father, but we also feel pained over her: life narrowed to an attic bedroom and her illness. But she takes us on a journey of discovery in the past, and, true or untrue, it is a beautiful journey to witness.

History of the Rain comes out in April and will also be featured as Radio 4's book of the week during April.

xx