Reading The Last Life, Divisadero, and Rough Music simultaneously is like living Tolsoy's opening line from Anna Karenina that says that "...every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way. " The spectre of a past event haunts each of the families in these three novels, and drives each author to jump back and forth between multiple time frames to tell their story. However, their characters, their settings, and their tones could not be more different.
I could not decide whether my grandfather was sentimental or heartless. I could not determine whose version was true. I could picture the romantic Jacques in Paris, and Jacques the righteous Catholic and father protecting his family, and I could even see the little boy, careless, frolicking in the streets of Blida: but I could not connect these images into a single person, into my grandfather. And by the same token, a short month later, I couldn't tell what I felt in the days following the shooting. Must I hate him - his was a vicious crime of rage and indifference, the surest sign of a cold heart - or must I love and pity him, a broken and sick man whose soul had been momentarily gripped by self-destructive madness?
One of the things I like about Claire Messud's The Last Life is that it uses its story not just to evoke the interlocking complexities of memory and family, but in it we watch a young girl learn that people and events are not black and white. We live through her pain and confusion as the loyalties of her friends shift against her. We, no doubt, live through her own changing perspectives as she ages, since the narrator of this story is an older version of that young girl. As I read that paragraph I though of the way the dark event with which this family lives could be an an analogue for world events, for ideas, and for how valuable it is to learn to think critically, not just to judge by feeling, or by popular opinion. Messud's tone is like a bicycle ride down a path in summer - not a lot of cushion between the rider and the road, you feel all the bumps, sometimes the ride requires some effort on your part - it is straightforward.
Seven minutes after I escaped from my father at the truck stop near San Jose, this person formerly known as Anna climbed into the passenger seat of a vehicle going south. We drove all night, a shy black man in his commercial refrigeration truck giving a lift to someone he thought was a French girl. (I did not wish to talk or explain anything.) We stopped now and then for food, though I barely ate, my stomach hurting from fear. We sat in roadside diners and I watched him eat guacamole and chiles rellenos, while the weather stations on every truck-stop television screen reported the freak ice storm invading northern California...
The tone of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero could not be more different than Messud's. If her's is a bicycle, this is like a ride on a donkey - it is steep, rocky terrain, you need the animal to go where you're going, but the pace is ambling and the progress not at all in a straight line. Sometimes you're just going where the animal wants you to go - quotes from John Muir and memories of reading Victor Hugo pepper this narrative of a family ripped asunder. It very much focuses on how individual identities of two sisters were shaped by a single moment of love and violence. It also contrasts a 'then' and a 'now.,' Who these people were and who have they become in light of that one moment. This narrative is more organic, its narrative seems to have less of a didactic point to it than Messud's. It is not a long book, but it does take its time, I am curious how or whether Ondaatje will tie things up. I suspect he may not. As I mentioned before, this book has a very wet, Virginia Woolfy feel about it.
"Shouldn't we start with my childhood?" he said. "Isn't that the usual thing?"
"If you like."
"I warn you. I wasn't abused. I wasn't neglected. I love my parents and I loved by childhood. It was very, very happy."
"Tell me about it."
Yeah, right, my reader's radar said, and that's why there's a book about it. Obviously the tone of Patrick Gale's Rough Music couldn't be more different than the previous two. It is chirpy and contemporary. It too jumps between a troubling past event shrouded in mystery and the present where it's consequences live, in this case unknown to our narrator. His journey doesn't start with insight, but no doubt it will end there. To continue on my vehicular metaphor binge, this book is a car ride... well no, maybe a train. It modern and goes places fast. People you don't know come into your compartment from time to time. There are chimes and little announcements about where you will arrive next so you know where you're going. I do always feel like I know where we are going next. It appears there may be a pair of family skeletons in this closet, one in each time period. The book hasn't yet said so explicitly, but that is where it is setting up to go. I'm afraid I'm finding the voice in this novel twee - not Will's voice, he's the central character, for whom I find that voice believable - but the narrator's voice, which is not effectively distinguished from Will's in a way that irritates me. There may be a point to that and I am finding the plot interesting enough to keep turning the pages. I will give this writer, who has been praised by a good number of literate bloggers of good taste like Mark Johnson at Fifth Estate, some more time. It could be that the bombshell I suspect Gale is winding up to drop is too obvious to me and not that big a deal. On the other hand, I could be guessing wrong. If I'm right, the fact that it's not a big deal to me is hardly the point. The novel is about the Pagett family in Britain, not about me and they have the right, as Tolstoy says, to be unhappy in their own way.