literary fiction

READ THE WORLD – Spain: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Pulp fiction writer David Martín is holed up in an abandoned mansion in the heart of Barcelona, desperately writing story after story while becoming increasingly frustrate and disillusioned. When he is approached by a mysterious publisher, Andreas Corelli, makes him an enticing offer David leaps at the chance. But as he begins to research and write this novel, and after a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, David realises there’s a connection between his book and the shadows that surround his dilapidated home, and maybe his publisher might be hiding secrets of his own.

The Angel’s Game is set in the same universe as The Shadow of the Wind, but I don’t think it matters if you haven’t read that book or if you haven’t read it for a while. I read and reviewed The Shadow of the Wind four years ago so naturally I can’t really remember much about the book, but the only connections I noticed was the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dilapidated tower home the main character in this novel came to live in. (After writing this review I googled the series and realised that The Angel’s Game is in fact a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind though apparently each book in the series is supposed to be able to stand on its own from the others, so it really doesn’t matter what order you read them in.)

Set in the 1920s and early 1930s, The Angel’s Game really makes use of both the time period and the city its set in to add to the mystery and eeriness of the story. Not being able to get hold of a character, or instances of mistaken identity are rife, and both increase the tension at key moments. The city of Barcelona truly becomes a character in its own right in The Angel’s Game. The narrow alleyways, abandoned houses, tiny shops and the often-bleak weather, makes the city a wonderful setting for a gripping mystery. The descriptions of the city are vivid making the few times characters venture elsewhere, even more stark and different to what we already know.

David is an interesting man. He’s often unlikable as he pushes away those who care about him when he’s obsessed with writing and is unsure how to love or be loved in return. He’s always had affection for the daughter of a friend’s driver, Cristina, but circumstance and society keeps them a part. His reluctant friendship with Isabella, an inspiring writer who is many years younger than him is surprisingly sweet and while their relationship isn’t without its troubles and miscommunications, their honesty with one another is truly needed by both of them.

The mystery of the tower house, its previous owner and what happened to them kicks in about the third of the way through the book. Andreas Corelli seems to be connected to it all though it takes a long time for David to figure things out. David becomes obsessive, both about his writing and the secrets his home holds, looking for reasons behind the deaths and strangeness that appears to be following him. The Angel’s Game is told in the first person from David’s point of view, meaning that as the story progresses and things get weirder, you begin to doubt what you’ve been told so far as David’s grip on reality seems to slip.

I shan’t say I picked up all the threads of the mystery before they were explained to me, nor that I totally understood the ending, but that didn’t make me like this story any less. The Angel’s Game was a very readable book and the whole gothic take on Barcelona fully pulled me into the story. Would it have been nice if the story wasn’t quite so convoluted and weird? Yes, but it’s still a book that I ended up enjoying more than I remembered enjoying its predecessor. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein.

In a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, lives intelligent and opinionated Lila, a bookish Elena. They are best friends who met aged ten but as they grow older and become teenagers, their paths divide slightly. Elena continues to study while Lila has to work to help her family.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in a four-book series called the Neapolitan Novels. This adult literary fiction series spans the lives of Lila and Elena. My Brilliant Friend begins with Elena receiving a call from Lila’s son saying she’s missing and from there the story jumps back to 1950s Naples and Elena and Lila’s childhood. Elena is the narrator of this story and as it’s from her perspective it’s easy to see that there’s perhaps some bias to how she paints certain characters. Elena idolises Lila, she does what Lila does and Lila’s thirst for knowledge pushes Elena to study harder.

Elena can see very few faults with Lila, both in terms of her personality and her appearance. When it comes to how Elena describes herself, she’s much more critical. She doesn’t like how she looks, and she thinks cruel things about how her mother looks too.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber and I have to say, I think if I’d read the physical copy, I would have gotten bored quickly so the fact it was on audio and I could listen to it as I walked to work or did the cleaning made me continue with it. The narration was good but it’s the story itself that didn’t really grab. The writing is often lovely and paints a vivid picture of post-World War Two Italy and how Elena and the other children don’t understand the political or financial issues they’ve been born into.

In many ways, not a lot happens in My Brilliant Friend. Because it follows Elena and Lila from childhood until their mid-teens, a lot of it is about their school life, the grades they get, what books their read, and as they get a bit older it becomes about boys and dating and going through puberty. For a large proportion of the book I was waiting for something big to happen, but that big thing never came. Yes, there were family arguments and friends had fights, but there was never anything that gripped me.

My Brilliant Friend is very much a character-driven story and I presume by the fourth book the story, and the characters ages, will have caught up to where Elena is informed Lila is missing at the beginning of this book and continue from there. However, there wasn’t enough about My Brilliant Friend that I liked in order to continue with this series. It is very well-written and I found both Elena and Lila equal parts frustrating and sympathetic many times, but their story was never something I truly became invested in. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Ghana: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

HomegoingThis is the story of two half-sisters from eighteenth century Ghana and their decedents. Effia was married to a white Englishman while Esi was sold into slavery and was forced onto a ship to America. Their stories and their children’s and grandchildren’s stories couldn’t be more different but there are always connections to the past.

Homegoing is a phenomenal book. Through following two sisters and their families, it covers three hundred years of history. Each chapter follows a different character, alternating between Effia’s family and Esi’s family. Each chapter is like a snapshot at a certain point in history and while you only get one chapter with a character you still learn more about the previous generations that you’ve already read about through that chapter. This means while you’re always meeting new characters or getting their story from their point of view for the first time, the past and the characters you’ve already encountered are not forgotten about. This is really interesting because you as the reader tend to know more about these characters’ families and their history than the characters do. It’s interesting to see if stories from the past are passed down through the generations and what is remembered or what is forgotten. All these characters you encounter are flawed and interesting and you want them to do well and not make the same mistakes their parents did or to do better for themselves like their parents wanted. The writing in Homegoing is great because you do become invested in these characters even if you don’t spend much time with them and there is some beautiful writing in this book.

By following a family through multiple generations, from the 1700’s to the start of the twenty-first century, you can also see how things changed both in Ghana and in America. There’s how Ghana came to be a country called Ghana and the slave trade on the Gold Coast and colonial rule. While in America there’s slaves working on cotton plantations, the Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement. Sometimes it is a bit difficult to pinpoint where exactly in history you are but the events unfolding around these characters helps give you an idea where the story is set.

Homegoing is such a compelling read. I read it in two days and I haven’t done that with a book, especially a “literary book”, in forever. This family and how traits and personalities are passed down or how one mistake or action can not only effect the next generation but future generations was fascinating.

Homegoing does tackle some tough subjects such as rape and violence and drug use and it never shies away from it but it is never overly judgemental either. Homegoing is a truly enlightening read because it unapologetically shows you what life was like for black people in America over the years, and how white people (mostly the British) colonising Africa affected generations.

I cannot recommend Homegoing enough. It has beautiful writing, a compelling and clever story and it’s an eye-opening and important book. 5/5.