Archive | May, 2020

The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson Translated by Victoria Cribb

It’s a broccoli book – and I hate broccoli

If, like me, you were raised in a book loving family, one of the things you were taught at an early age was that books, once started, should be finished. You should read to the end, even if you don’t want to. I’ve no idea why we were taught that as children – I don’t know about you, but when I was a child I was taught all sorts of stuff that I had to disabuse myself of before I could even dream about a happy life. One of those things was eating broccoli. I did it for years. Why? Because people told me I should. It was good for me. And I hated it. And then, one day, maybe ten years ago, maybe a little less, I was in mid chew and I thought, “Why am I doing this? I don’t care how good it is for me – I hate the stuff.” I haven’t eaten it since. I’ll never eat it again.

The Darkness is like that. It’s very well written and, although I don’t speak a word of Icelandic, I can tell that Victoria Cribb’s translation is first class. And I read 80% of the book before I thought, “Why am I struggling on like this? I’m bored to tears. I couldn’t care less about the characters or what happens to them. My time has been woefully imposed on.” And I stopped. I didn’t finish it. I never will.

I know from looking at the reviews that there are people who think The Darkness is a wonderful book. I’m very pleased for them. I’m also very pleased for people who like eating broccoli. But both sets of people are deluded.

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Killing the Girl by Elizabeth Hill

I’m a long-time admirer of William Trevor. I like the way, as an outsider (a Protestant in Catholic Ireland, and someone who had moved often in his childhood), he observed the people around him and presented them accurately in his fiction. I like even more his ability to indicate that what we are seeing when we read his books is not all that’s there. Sometimes, there’s a curtain between what we see and what is just out of sight but every bit as real. Sometimes, instead of a curtain it’s the ground beneath us and we know that it could suddenly move and we’ll be staring into the abyss. Those are great gifts in a writer and you don’t come across them very often. They are present in Killing the Girl by Elizabeth Hill. Hill lets us know that there’s more to the story than she has shown us – and, just occasionally and just for a moment, she lets it emerge from the darkness and stand before us.

As a man, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the way men are dealt with in this book, and I don’t just mean that there are three deaths and all of them are male. What made me uncomfortable was the qualities the men shared: all three of them took so naturally to controlling the protagonist (Carol Cage, who tells her story in the first person) that it was clearly second nature, and one of them also beat her. I know it happens. I don’t like knowing it happens. I don’t like watching it. But it is very well done here.

Carol spends most of her life in the shade of others. She knows it’s possible to be happy, but it seems to be beyond her reach. She reaches a kind of settlement at the end, and she does it as the reader reaches a different kind of ending. I said that all of the deaths are male; the title of the book is Killing the Girl, but the girl who dies is the naïve twelve-year-old who lives inside Carol Cage’s head and it’s long past her time to leave us.

It’s a challenging read, but worth it, and easy enough because, about a quarter of the way in, I found it had become one of those fairly rare books that grab you and pull you inside to the point where you’re living inside them and you can’t stop reading even if you want to (which I did, at one point, because of the kind of men I was having to look at. And I didn’t like the picture on the cover one little bit). It’s a first novel and it isn’t perfect, but it’s close. I look forward to the next by this author.

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