Bleak House

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Bleak House- Charles Dickens

I had to read this book for my course, otherwise- I freely yet shamefully admit- I probably wouldn’t have done. I read some Dickens in year ten (before my literary tastebuds had fully developed, granted- do they ever stop developing?!) and I wasn’t very keen, so when I found out that one of Dickens’ longest novels was required reading, I was far from thrilled.

Bleak House is a book with a lot of faults. Many of the characters are flat- especially the protagonist, Esther Summerson. The blurb of my copy calls her “psychologically interesting” but I disagree. She’s a complete Mary-Sue and far too much of a goody-two-shoes for to be likeable, plus she exhibits an annoying amount of false modesty; for example, she claims that she doesn’t find herself beautiful, but goes on to describe at length how many others find her so. Yet saying that, towards the end of the novel an unexpected depth to Sir Leicester Dedlock, who at first seems to be nothing more than a pompous old fool. His declaration that he is on “unaltered terms” with Lady Dedlock in spite of some shocking revelations about her reveals him to be a man unparalleled in nobility, forgiveness and unconditional love. His speech is one of the most moving moments of the book and even brought a tear to my eye, whereas I was previously indifferent to the Dedlocks.

The novel is also very unusual, plot wise. It’s experimental, and there’s a lot going on that you’re not told about until later. There are many plot threads and so many characters that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, or it would be if they weren’t all so unusual. Bleak House is a satire on the English Chancery, a social commentary and a prototype of the detective novel. There’s also a very unusual relationship at the centre of it, between Esther and Mr Jarndyce, who becomes a father figure, then a romantic interest and then a father figure once more. It’s most bizarre and a little bit Freudian, and Esther’s romantic feelings towards Jarndyce aren’t much discussed- we know she regards him very highly as a father figure and seems to have to real objection to marrying him, even though we know there’s someone else she’d prefer (we’re just not told who). Perhaps it’s due to her perfect and uncomplaining nature or perhaps she’s confused herself, but either way a bit more exploration would have been nice, Mr Dickens.

I’m glad I’ve read Bleak House, but I’m not sure I’d read it again. I found that the last two hundred pages were very interesting as the story really developed- a reward for wading through the previous five hundred- and the ending was satisfactory, but I could never really bring myself to particularly care for any of the characters. Then again, Dickens isn’t famed for his round, psychologically complex characters so maybe that’s to be expected. I’d recommend this novel if you’re interested in narratology or the evolution of the novel, or a Dickens fan, but if you don’t fall into any of those categories then I wouldn’t expect you to find it particularly enjoyable.

Have YOU read Bleak House? What were your thoughts? I’d love to know, so please leave me a comment!

Oryx and Crake

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This is my first blog post in over a year, so please bear with me if it’s a little substandard! I won’t bore you with the reasons I haven’t written, but essentially university and travelling mean that I haven’t had a lot of time to write, or to many books to blog about (unless you’d all enjoy a review of ‘Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking People’?). However, I have read some books along the way that are most definitely worthy of a mention, and none so more than Margaret Atwood’s ‘Maddaddam’ trilogy and so I’m going to write a review of each book over the next three days.

Right, that’s enough pre-amble; on with the review…

I received Oryx and Crake and its sequel, The Year of the Flood, as Christmas presents from my sister. I knew Margaret Atwood was a critically acclaimed and prolific writer, but I wasn’t sure that the novels were going to be my cup of tea. I’ve dipped my digits in the dystopian before (The Hunger Games, 1984) but it’s not a genre I frequent, and I’ll admit that at first terms such as ‘pigeons’ and ‘Crakers’ did baffle me a bit. This wasn’t an issue for long, however, as Atwood has such a clear way of explaining her outrageous creations, although perhaps that’s because the world she describes is frighteningly possible. A few chapters in and I was hooked.

Oryx and Crake tells the story of Jimmy (a.k.a. Snowman), the last surviving human who has been entrusted with the care of the Crakers. The human race has been all but wiped out and the Crakers are sort of like Humanity 2.0- they’re humans with all of the flaws removed. As Jimmy remembers his life, his friendship with Crake (the creator of the Crakers) and their relationship with the beautiful and enigmatic Oryx, we learn about the dystopian world which existed before humanity was culled, and how the cull was brought about. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a terribly corrupted world, as well as one of love, loneliness, nostalgia, bitterness and jealousy.

Atwood has denied that her novel is science fiction and has instead called it ‘speculative fiction’, which I agree is a much more fitting term. Yes, the world of Oryx and Crake is saturated with corruption and dishonesty, but it isn’t that dissimilar to our own. Yes, Jimmy is in a unique and rather improbable situation (or so we’d like to think), but he’s something of an everyman. He isn’t a particularly good character, nor is he particularly bad. Throughout the novel attention is frequently drawn to his averageness, especially in comparison with brilliant Crake, and this averageness allows- perhaps even forces- the reader to relate to Jimmy, to put his or herself in his situation. You come to the realisation that you are Jimmy, that he does what you would do, that he feels as you would feel. You can no longer palm off the story as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘impossible’; you are drawn into it and forced to confront it. By giving Oryx and Crake an unremarkable protagonist, Atwood renders it a remarkable novel.

But the novel’s merits don’t end there. Atwood’s writing style is incredibly easy to read without ever feeling simplistic, and full of shrewd observations about human nature. She’s often very funny too, particularly in the scenes with the naive Crakers, who know nothing about the world before. One such incidence is when Snowman, irritated by their incessant questioning, tells them to “Piss off” and they endearingly respond “What is ‘piss off’?”. The mixture of past and present Atwood uses is also compelling; we delve into Jimmy’s past but are never allowed to forget his present and we discover enough at a time to interest us, yet leave us wanting more.

Oryx and Crake is a novel that’s hard to sum up. It’s beautiful, brutal, funny and painful. At first it seems far-fetched, then it becomes a little too close for comfort. It’s romantic but realistic. It deals with universal human emotions, yet it’s not an overly sentimental novel- some critics have gone as far to say that Atwood’s writing is unemotional, but I disagree with that entirely. In short, it’s a work of genius and I’d recommend it to everyone. You don’t have to be a sci-fi lover (I’m certainly not) or a serious bookworm to enjoy them; I’d say they have a pretty universal appeal as there are so many different elements to the story- you’re bound to find something you like in there!

(I was going to include a discussion on an event near the end of the novel in this post but decided better of it due to spoilers. The post will follow shortly!)

Have YOU read Oryx and Crake? What did you think? Please leave me your comments here!

Burn for Burn

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Burn for Burn – Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian

I downloaded this book in my search for escapism from examination related stress and despair, hoping for a juicy tale of scandal and revenge. And I have to say, even though the book didn’t quite have the mystery I was hoping for, it was pretty good and I read it very quickly. 

Burn for Burn is, as you might have guessed, all about revenge. Three girls- all of whom can be identified as one of the stereotypes in my earlier post (outwardly tough and sarcastic tomboy, rich and beautiful popular girl and shy, clever girl who doesn’t know how pretty she is)- form an unlikely alliance in order to seek revenge on those who have wronged them; three people who just happen to be in the same clique as Lillia, the aforementioned popular girl. Two of the ‘allies’ were formerly friends, giving the trio an interesting dynamic, but the inclusion of the third girl, Mary, means that the book isn’t all about past rivalries- it’s also very much about the changing present. I really enjoyed the complicated relationships in this book, not just between the trio but also between the protagonists and the people on whom they are hoping to exact revenge. Their motivations for revenge are individual but overlapping, and the characters’ feelings for one another become very tangled. Things become increasingly complicated as the plot progresses, but this makes it all the more enjoyable. After all, when is revenge simple? 

In addition to this, as the plot progresses, the schemes of revenge become increasingly nastier and have truly disastrous consequences. The plot is imaginative and my favourite thing about the novel, but it’s also not entirely unrealistic; though improbable, I can imagine wronged girls uniting to do this. Han and Vivian also present it in a realistic way- the characters struggle to cooperate at times and it’s certainly not all plain sailing. 

I also really liked the way that Han and Vivian conveyed things to the audience that the characters themselves don’t know; it’s clear that Mary is, or at least was, in love with Reeve- hence why she was so hurt by him- but she herself doesn’t know this and it’s implied very subtly, which I felt was very skilful. On top of this, I could really relate to the way Mary wanted a dramatic moment with Reeve but he barely noticed her- that’s pretty much my secondary school experience in a nutshell! Another great detail was that Rennie, the most fearsome and popular girl in school, wasn’t actually rich, but she treated everybody like scum anyway; there were several girls in my school who acted as though they were rich and had a right to put other people down, but in reality that wasn’t the case at all. 

All in all, Burn for Burn is an enjoyable read for teenage girls and a nice bit of escapism that is, thanks to the smaller plot details, of a higher calibre than most young adult fiction, even if it follows pretty much the same lines. I highly doubt it’ll win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but if you like scandal, secrets and revenge then this is perfect for you!