herald

Thursday 18 December 2014

Home is where the art is

and the mountains echoed by Khaled Hosseini Bloomsbury 2013, €14.99 ****

Hosseini's latest starts off with a fable, which put me off reading it, for a while. I suppose I knew that any story that starts with a symbolic tale is not going to end well. How could it? We all know what fables are about: learning lessons the hard way.

This fable, of course, is the metaphorical touchstone of the whole story: what is home, where is it, is it only one place, and is one's true home, by necessity, different from that of one's family? Must we all leave, in one way, shape or form, in order to grow and find the best use of our gifts?

Hosseini plays with the essence of time and space in a narrative that many might like to call 'sprawling', a fairly typical book review-y term. It is vast, but it does not sprawl.

Rather, it weaves together its themes as does a spider its web, and at its central point sits the yearning of the whole book, that Abdullah and Pari, the brother and sister so cruelly separated at the start will be reunited.

Nothing is certain, as we journey from Afghanistan to Paris to San Francisco to Greece and back again. Morals are mutable, and the ends justify the means – or so the many characters tell themselves.

There are so, so many people in this story, and yet the clarity of the writing keeps everything in place, even when those places keep shifting, like the sands of the desert. In the end, there is perhaps one life story too many, one lesson that we may not have needed to be instructed by. The entire Greek storyline comes late in the book and feels so jarringly unnecessary – yes, yes, Homer, howaya – that it almost threw the whole thing off course.

APPETITE

That the aforementioned queries about home are left to our own conclusions, however, is the sign of a writer who respects his readers.

Is closure actually necessary, even if it is only 'good enough' and not exactly heartwarming?

Maybe, maybe not, but in this case, getting to the end of this story is a rewarding justification, thanks to the means.

An absorbing read, which whetted my appetite for reading more stories about leaving home.

the house of rumour by Jake Arnott Sceptre 2013, €12.99 ***

Set during the early years of influential science-fiction writing in the US, this is a big auld mash up of Nazis and science fiction and UFOs and transvestites. Or maybe just one transvestite? It was pretty difficult to keep track. Arnott makes a compelling argument for life imitating art imitating life, but if you put it down for even one day, it is difficult to pick up the thread again.

Some of it feels bit showoffy – that the author knows an abundance of things is apparent – but Arnott's ability to weave a complicated narrative thread can't be disputed.

No one ends up where they started from, and sometimes life on earth can be as compelling as in outer space.

the girl on the stairs by Louise Welsh John Murray 2013, €11.45 ****

Welsh does an extraordinary job of several things at once: expressing the grim greyness of Berlin, the feeling of discomfort of being in a new place, and the edginess of getting caught in something that is not one's own business.

Jane is pregnant, largely because her girlfriend thinks it will curb her wild child ways.

Hmmm, that's all gonna work out fine, right?

The story is told with heart-stopping deftness, up until the end, when we are treated to some clunky wrapping up of loose ends.

Still, getting there is something that's utterly absorbing.

appetite by Philip Kazan Orion 2013, €14.99 **

Set in Florence, before the dawn of the Renaissance, a butcher's son with a great gift as a chef finds himself travelling around Italy, cooking for the greatest names of the age. The narrative meanders without urgency, with the best parts being all about the food. Don't read this on an empty stomach.

the paris winter by Imogen Robertson Headline Review 2013, €20.50 **

Yes, woman are artists, too, even if, during the Belle Epoque, they inhabited the very fringes of society and the art world. Having been a fan of Robertson's Harriet Westerman mysteries – sort of like CSI set in the 18th century – I was disappointed by this. Maud is an English artist abroad, dying by inches from the cold and her impoverished state. When offered a chance to be companion to a rich young Frenchwoman, it seems her luck is on the upswing. Nope, not so much. Sadly the tale has at its centre a woman who it is difficult to warm to.

the curiosity by Stephen Kiernan John Murray 2013, €20.50 *

A scientific expedition to the Arctic Circle to discover an iceberg that may be sustaining frozen, technically dead matter that could be resurrected into living matter finds a 100- year-old frozen man. The story is an attempt to comment on science via romance and fish out of water (ha, ha) themes. What could have been an engaging fantasy is hampered by said science.

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