Book Reviews The National

Conflicted Feelings

“The Surrendered” opens with an image reminiscent of a war photograph. An 11-year old girl is riding on top of a train, cradling her two younger siblings against the cold with a stolen blanket as they flee south with other refugees at the start of the Korean War. The image is iconic, beautiful in its way and shot through with foreboding. Nested together, the orphans are “these last of their kind.” And soon, the girl, June, is the only one left.

The novel opens up like an album of atrocities, though the stills that are hard to look at alternate with more alluring ones, in a book that has perhaps as much sex as it does death. Its characters are so convincingly etched, its story carried forward with such a momentum of empathy, like the refugee train, that it is more felt than intellectually encountered. Its author, the Korean-American writer Chang-Rae Lee, recently told an interviewer that he wanted “to give a certain bodily experience to the reader. Because I don’t think I can explain war.”

In this he succeeds: his words provoke what Susan Sontag, in her dissection of war photography, Regarding the Pain of Others, called“the pleasure of flinching.”

Continue reading the review in The National.

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A Master of the Art

Among the many things about democracy that annoyed the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville during his 1830s tour of America was the shape-shifting quality of language under its influence. He complained, in his classic treatise Democracy in America, that the restless spirit of citizens under this political system led to the constant creation of new words and new meanings at every turn. There was a chaos and a swagger to these linguistic innovations that the nobleman, happier with the changeless hierarchies of the ancien regime, could not bear. “Thus rope dancers,” he wrote, “are turned into acrobats and funambulists.”

Peter Carey – whose new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, fictionalizes Tocqueville’s American field trip – is an accomplished and unapologetic funambulist when it comes to prose. His sentences walk tightropes, and the thrill to be had from them can be described as verbal vertigo. Consider how Ned Kelly, the hero of his True History of the Kelly Gang, sums up his displaced forefathers: “our brave parents was ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history.” Carey proves Tocqueville’s point about language in America; his writing is rambunctious and innovative. Continue to read my review in The Abu Dhabi Review, the arts and ideaa section of The National.


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A Way in the World

In Neel Mukherjee’s first novel, a young Calcuttan hiding out in 1990s London reimagines the life of an English spinster in turn-of-the-century Bengal. Read my review of this ambitiously transnational debut in The Abu Dhabi Review, the arts and ideas section of The National.



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Plantation Road

Read how Scots gave their names to misbegotten places while on youthful adventures abroad: my dispatch from Scotland for Abu Dhabi’s The National.