Paperback reviews: Out Of Time, Night, The Girl Who Walked On Air, The Lie Of You, Pedro Paramo

 

Out Of Time By Lynne Segal (Verso £9.99)

A combination of memoir, politics, literary criticism and feminism, this book explores what it’s like to grow old. Segal’s primary task is myth-busting. On the one hand, there is the story that ageing is just horrible, an ambush of losses and indignities awaiting us all – a story told by writers such as Philip Larkin, Martin Amis, and Philip Roth. Segal acknowledges that this myth has its truths; but it’s not the whole story. The alternative myth, advanced by such writers as Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, is that ageing is not to be feared but welcomed, that old age is a time of wisdom, and liberation from sexuality. And this myth has its truths too, but omits the realities of loneliness, frailty and cognitive deterioration. It’s worth noting that the pessimistic myth tends to be peddled more by men, and the optimistic myth more by women – and this despite the probability that old age bears more harshly on women than on men in our society. But Segal isn’t in the business of point-scoring: her message is for both women and men, and it is that old age contains both pleasures and perils, and we’d better come to terms with that (like we have a choice!). She is quite rightly polemical about ageism and the disrespectful way old people are treated and referred to, and quotes with approval writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Julian Barnes and John Berger, who write of the elderly neither with horror nor false cheeriness, but with affection and respect. A thought-provoking book that equips the reader to travel a little more gently towards that good night.

****

Night By Edna O’brien (Faber & Faber £8.99)

A reprint of O’Brien’s 1972 novel, at 148 pages this is a slim work, but it punches above its weight. Mary Hooligan is lying in bed while house-sitting and unable to sleep. She passes the time by reminiscing about her childhood in rural Ireland, her mother’s funeral, her marriage, her son, her friendships, and her many love affairs. The story meanders along without any clear chronology, but the sense of a personality and a life shine through – it’s anarchic, good-hearted, and alive to the textures and sensations of human experience. And bawdy: at one point Mary suggests that a “quim diviner” would be a good idea, so men could tell if a woman was sexually attracted to them or not, and she also speculates about where vaginal transudate comes from, and when a woman is not sexually excited, where does it go? The style is extravagant, full of unexpected turns of phrase and a totally off-the-leash vocabulary. Obviously it owes something to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, but has its own distinctive voice.

****

The Girl Who Walked On Air By Emma Carroll (Faber & Faber £6.99)

A pleasantly readable story for 9-11 year-olds, The Girl Who Walked on Air recounts the adventures of young Louie Reynolds, circus-worker and self-taught funambulist. She yearns to be a top-of-the-bill showstopper, but the circus-owner won’t let her; then, one day, a rival circus man, the mysterious Mr Wellbeloved, offers her the chance of a trip to America – and Niagara Falls .... It draws heavily on stock ingredients of the genre – the orphaned protagonist, the beloved pet dog, the scenes of unfair treatment, well-worn tropes such as “taking the stairs two at a time” – and the plotting is on the predictable side. But it’s engaging and entertaining. You certainly know who to cheer and who to boo, and what’s wrong with that?

***

The Lie Of You By Jane Lythell (Head Of Zeus £7.99)

The Lie of You is a creepy psychological thriller, narrated by two women: Kathy, editor of a prestigious architectural magazine, and Heja, a journalist on Kathy’s staff who was once a TV star in Finland. Kathy has a taciturn Finnish husband and a one-year-old son, Peter; Heja has an unhealthy stalking habit. Heja’s brooding, devious narrative is genuinely unsettling, and the novel inexorably builds to a jangling climax. The plotting is: a) unpredictable; and b) plausible and character-driven – not an easy trick to pull off. My only real reservation is that the character of Peter is under-drawn – obviously infants do not have such rich psychological histories as adults, but they are still people and deserve individuation.

****

Pedro Paramo By Juan Rulfo (Serpent’s Tail £8.99)

Rulfo’s 1955 novel is considered a masterpiece of Mexican literature. A young man, Juan Preciado, comes to the town of Comala in search of his father, Pedro Paramo. But Comala is literally a ghost town – the houses are all empty, but the voices of the dead are everywhere. The narrative shuttles between Preciado’s viewpoint and those of the dead souls, and gradually we learn more of Pedro, who once ruled the town as a kind of feudal overlord, and the ancient passions and crimes that the unquiet dead still whisper about. A weird, unsettling story – in his foreword, Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that when he first encountered the novel: “That night I couldn’t sleep until I had read it twice,” and one can see why.

*****

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