Friday, November 11, 2011

The Unreliable Narrator

Why did I think Julian Barnes was a difficult read? I don't remember much about “Flaubert's Parrot”, but I seem to remember that I struggled to get through it. So I approached his latest book The Sense of an Ending with some trepidation. But it had just won the Booker prize and was only 176 pages long, so I decided to try him again.

I could have read this book in one big gulp. The first section is a coming of age story, as Tony Webster recounts his memories of his high school and college days – his youthful friendships and his first romance - “In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives.”

In the second section an unexpected letter causes sixty-something Tony to look back on his life and re-examine his memories - “we live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time”. Sorry to keep quoting, but Barnes puts things so succinctly that there's no point in paraphrasing. Tony struggles to unravel the mystery that the letter presents, and in the process he must deal with his own delusions and guilt. 
This is a book about how our memories shape us and how they deceive us, how our emotions color our interpretations of events. Barnes does a masterful job of creating a character who is forced to spin his memories over and over before they finally show him the truth.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Jungle Sci-Fi

Ann Patchett’s latest novel, "State of Wonder" opens in a small town in Minnesota in the dead of winter. But it quickly takes the reader to the depths of the Amazon jungle. Marina Singh is a pharmacologist working for a major drug company. Marina learns that her lab partner and dear friend, Anders Eckman, has died of a sudden fever in the Amazon Jungle. Anders was sent by their employer, Vogel Pharmaceutical Company, to Brazil to bring back information about the progress another employee, Dr. Annick Swenson, was making on a miracle fertility drug.

Marina’s boss and lover, “Mr. Fox”, convinces Marina she has to go to Brazil to find Dr. Swenson and bring the miracle drug to Vogel. Ander’s wife believes Marina can find out what happened to her husband.

So begins Marina’s journey to the depths of the jungle where she confronts her past and finds answers she never imagined. She becomes part of Dr. Swenson’s world among the wonderful Lakashi Tribe. She sees and learns things that her scientific mind cannot grasp and she learns to trust the jungle and its inhabitants, strange as they are. But ultimately Ann Patchett is presenting the question of medical and moral ethics that surround the need to preserve natural resources and the habitats of the native people who live and thrive on these resources, which can be and (more often than not) are, more important than scientific discovery.

Ann Patchett has written a scientific thriller with an ending that is as unexpected as it is touching and sad.