Saturday 19 February 1994
There's no doubt that this is an extremely moving book. Based on a true case of a 10-year-old black boy convicted for the murder of a white girl in Mississippi in 1937, it doesn't so much pull the heartstrings as engage in a tug of war with them. There is the little boy's sad home life, the girl's tragic accidental death, the awful separation of the boy and his mother and the final, traumatic death by electric chair, all told with the same anguished simplicity. It seems churlish of the reader to ask, what else? But necessary nonetheless. The tag of being a true story seems to have let the author off working to make it convincing fiction. Instead, he has run wild simply on the fact of the boy's youth to paint a picture of absolute innocence up against absolute evil. Linguistic subtlety, moral quandaries, the movement of sympathy from character to character, the possibility of irony - these are the most basic literary standards on which the book fails, for all its good intentions.
Affliction by Fay Weldon, HarperCollins, pounds 12.99.
Oh what fun] More couples having the most terrible time, in the inimitable Weldon way of wedlock. Nothing is more calculated to make one feel very lucky and very happy than this glibly depressed portrait of a relationship on the rocks. This particular marriage is destroyed by a shot of astrology and therapy; but it could be anything, really. As one characteristic exchange goes: 'I thought you were out of the pit. You're not.' 'You don't have to get out of it, Gilda. There isn't any route out. You just clean it up a bit, grow a few flowers and ask everyone in.'
The Time: Night by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Translated by Sally Laird, Virago, pounds 9.99.
Anyone who thinks life's a struggle ought to try living in the apartment at the centre of this striking domestic horror story. A woman scrimps, saves and fights to put food - a bit of bread, half an egg - on the table for her ungrateful daughter and her layabout husband, while somehow looking after a two-year-old grandson at the same time. The reflexes of self-pity make her a comical martyr every now and then: she confides to her daughter that the husband must be a homosexual, since he seems so keen on the baby. But for the most part the author (and the translator) keep the pressure on, and we wince to see a trapped life unravelling itself in tears. This brief novel did well in the Russian Booker, and it is not hard to see why. Beside the best Russian literature it might seem one-dimensional, but it explores that one dimension with extreme cunning and eloquence.
The Illustrated Woody Allen Reader, Ed. Linda Sunshine, Cape, pounds 17.99
Bits and bobs from films, stories and monologues are wrapped round chirpy pictures. Hard to see what's new about it, and the book has the uncomfortable feeling of a volume aiming to cash in on notoriety rather than anything else. But what the heck: there are superb lines on every page, and the volume succeeds easily in reminding us that Woody's domestic dilemmas can't obscure for long the wit of the work.
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