Why I loved the Goldfinch

Sometimes, a work of art comes along that is not only brilliant in the universality of its appeal, but that is also just right for you, as an individual, in that specific moment of time. Its themes and particular beauty speak to you on a personal level, and thus remembered forever for that.

This is of course the premise of Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch, an epic 800-page monster which follows a single, tiny painting and one boy’s attempts to hang on to it, but it is also true of the novel itself.

It is hard to describe how much I loved this novel – it’s like watching a painting in motion, you unmoving in your spot as the light changes over the course of day and night and different weather pattern, and reveals new and unexpected angles. You walk the streets of New York and Las Vegas and see how the sky changes,  to eventually end up in Amsterdam (a city that to me is home, as well as a bit of an adventure) and let the clouds bear down on you, knowing the sun is about to take a peek on the canals.

Amsterdam (image wikimedia)

Amsterdam (image wikimedia)

The story follows Theodore Decker, who at 13 is involved in a tragic bombing at a New York City art gallery which kills his mother. In his shock, he encounters a dying man who instructs him to rescue a painting from the ruins of the gallery, and Theo takes it home with him, not knowing what else to do.

The painting is the Goldfinch, painted by Dutch master painter Carel Fabritius in 1654. The ghost of Fabritius lingers over the course of the story – he himself came to an end in the explosion of the gunpowder house in Delft, which also set fire to his studio, destroying most of his work. He was only 32 years old at the time. We are  left to wonder why he painted the tiny little gold finch on its perch, a peculiar little piece for the time; most Dutch paintings from the 17th century are commissioned portraits, landscapes or still-lifes, in which the animals are mostly dead.


Carel Fabritius, self portrait (image from wikipedia)

The little bird sits on its perch, watching the viewer with surprisingly lively eyes, and you can’t help but feel sorry for its chain, keeping it from flying less than a feet away from its perch before the little bird is yanked back in its place like the household toy it is.

Theo is similarly trapped into the events of his life. After the death of his mother he spirals down into a madhouse of overcoming his grief and finding a new place for himself. The first part is spent with the kindly but also rather cold Barbours family, wealthy friends of Theo’s who take him in for the first few weeks, after which his father, a bit of a shady figure who ran away from the family, unexpectedly shows up to take Theo home.

Home, as it turns out, is a condo in the outer suburbs of Las Vegas, newly built in the middle of nowhere, amidst desert sand, blistering heat and the dubious practices of the dad and his new girlfriend Xandra (‘Not Sandra with an S, and definitely not Sandy’)

Here he meets my favourite character, Boris, dragged over to the US from the ex-Soviet Union by his alcoholic father, and they take on their existential crises with good-humoured experimenting with drugs and Russian Literature.  Boris, on the loss of their parents;

“Mistake was made! Everything is unfair! Who do we complain to, in this shitty place?”

Out of this relationship the real climax of the novel eventually comes about in the streets of Amsterdam, by which time Theo is an experienced dealer in antiques and Boris a minor crime lord, and Theo’s concealment of the painting all those years turns out to have some unexpected consequences.

Perhaps surprisingly, they end up doing the right thing.
This was one of my favourite novels, and most certainly of any novel recently released.  It was just right on so many levels for me. Would recommend. 


Achilles and Death; How to make a name last

Talking to a friend about films the other day, she told me her favourite was ‘300’. This is a movie I associate with comically overblown fighting scenes and Gerard Butler in a loincloth totally unsuited to keeping hordes of Persians out of Greece, but when I asked her why it was her favourite, she told me that the film reminded her of “what it means to be human.”

Even though ‘300’ was based on a comic book more than any historical event, the comment made me wonder about classic Greek literature, particularly Homer’s Iliad, which is more usually referred to when people say literature taught them something about human nature. What is it about these warrior stories that appeals so much to so many people?

Bring on that dactylic hexameter! Ancient Greek is thrilling stuff (photo source: comicbookmovie.com)

Bring on that dactylic hexameter! Ancient Greek is thrilling stuff (photo source: comicbookmovie.com)

The Iliad has survived for centuries because it does in fact tell us something about being human. However, beyond providing some excellent caricatures of the less pleasant people we meet in our everyday lives – the manipulative Odysseus is the archetype of any politician, while king Agamemnon’s management skills mainly consist of deferring unpleasant tasks to someone else – it is not always that clear why it strikes such an emotional chord.

To find out why, I returned to some of the popular modern adaptations I’ve read or seen of the story, and tried to work what the writers did – which elements of the original they kept intact, and which were altered – in order to figure out what made these adaptations work – or not.

The biggest effort in terms of scale was probably Hollywood’s production of Troy, the 2004 movie starring celebrity actors like Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom, among others. I know many people liked this movie, due to the action scenes and some of the acting. However, the movie just doesn’t work for me, mainly because it didn’t stick to the events of the original Iliad at all and left out the entire cast of Olympian god characters.

Those biceps are the only reason people liked Troy, really. (picture from ign.com)

Those biceps are the only reason people liked Troy, really. (source: ign.com)

I can only guess at what the intended aim of the screenwriters was, but there is one scene in the movie, where Achilles lops off the head of a statue in one of the Trojan temples dedicated to their gods, that implies that they must’ve figured the gods have no place in a story told to a 21st century audience. After all, many of us would say we consider ourselves self-made and free, choosing the course of our lives entirely for ourselves. All value judgements aside, this does make it awfully hard to relate to the psychology of a group of warriors who lived thousands of years ago and their motivations, which by themselves probably do little to warm us to them: like sacking a city for the purposes of dragging a woman back by her hair or throwing a big fit over honour and war prizes.

This is why the characters of the gods do much to keep the themes of the Iliad alive. The gods, being immortal, make the idea of ‘forever’ physical, close enough to reach out to but just far enough to be tantalizing. They represent both immortality and fate, and the human desire to achieve the first and manipulate the second, a struggle that must be recognizable to anyone, regardless of the time they live in.

Some of the most tragic moments in the saga are the times when one of the characters realizes he or she can’t hold off fate forever- even the gods sometimes have to accept that they cannot save their mortal children or favourite heroes when fate (or Zeus) has other plans for them.

A good modern adaptation of greek literature should ideally address these dilemmas between immortality, fate, and personal autonomy. A book I liked particularly for this reason was Madeline Miller’s novel, ‘the song of Achilles’. It describes the relationship between Achilles and, in this version, his lover Patroclus in the lead-up to the Trojan war, as they learn that Achilles must fight and die to achieve immortal status in legend, or watch his divine talents fade away as he becomes an old man.

I initially had very mixed feelings about this book, especially as it includes a lot of scenes in which Patroclus sits around like a love-struck puppy dog, literally admiring the pink soles of Achilles’ feet. In fact, it was a very clever move to re-tell the story from Patroclus’ point of view: he struggles with his own feelings for Achilles and his selfless resolution to protect Achilles’ reputation, so that the latter will have the greatest fame possible after his death, an emotional dilemma people can relate to.


The gods are constantly present in influence, providing the framework for the characters’ decision making. Thetis is the only god-like personality that physically appears in the book: she functions as a villain throughout most of the book, hating Patroclus because she is afraid he will ruin her son’s heroic reputation, right up until the point Achilles is actually killed.

Being one of the lowest ranking gods, Thetis is blessed with eternal life, but no power to control anything that happens around her, much less the final outcome of her son’s life: she is left nothing more than that most universal of characters, a mother.

“We watch the light sink into the grave of the Western sky. ‘I could not make him a god,’ she says. Her jagged voice, rich with grief.”
(Madeline Miller)

What we relate to in many of the Greek stories is the simple tragedy of seeking to gain some sense of control over the narratives of our lives; control that most of us at times in our lives will feel like we don’t have, especially when faced with death. The lengths normal people would go to try and achieve any sense of immortality comparable to that of their deities is a sure recipe for a drama that stays recognizable over time.  

Just write, dammit

That’s it, I give up. Predestination, the apocalypse, Asia as Future Nightmare, Cloning, Birth Marks, Gay rights, the history of classical music, a One-Flew-Over-the- Cuckoo’s-Nest rip-off and the original inhabitants of New Zealand – all rolled in over 500 pages. It’s called Cloud Atlas and yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

hugo-weaving-cloud-atlas-asian(This is what Asians look like in the future, according to Cloud Atlas the movie. Actually actor Hugo Weaving with make-up. Questionable decision.) 

I hate to give up on books half-way through but this novel has been sitting on my desk since November and I just can’t face reading the rest of it, so I’m calling it quits. Gasp. If anyone knows what this book was actually about, I would love for you to fill me in, but I’m just not doing it anymore. And it’s not even because of all the stuff I mentioned above, most of it would do pretty well as subject material by itself. No. I actually got to page 278 and then this happened:

“So many feelin’s I’d got din’t have room ‘nuff for ‘em. O, bein’ young ain’t easy ‘cos ev’rythin’ you’re puzzlin’n’anxin’ you’re puzzlin’n’anxin it for the first time.”

This sure had me puzzling and anxious, or annexing, or even angsting – or whatever the hell anxin means. This manner of writing goes on over 80 pages, it makes up the central part of the book, is crucial to the plot (according to trusty amazon reviews) and is utterly unintelligible. The worst part is that by this point I was not only frustrated but bored in the extreme.

I know this book has received a lot of positive feedback for its supposed literary merit (which in this case just means messing around with narrative structures and language a lot) but it didn’t work for me.

The other day, I watched an interview with Ian McEwan, in which he rather bemusedly told the audience about how he had once tried to help his son write an essay about one of his own books, Enduring Love. Apparently the McEwan & son collaboration got a ‘very bad mark’ because the teacher thought they had the wrong idea about the meaning of the novel, insisting that in fact the stalker character represented the ‘authorial  moral centre’ of the story. Ian McEwan himself added rather dryly that he just thought the character was a ‘complete madman’, which made me love the man even more.

Either way, what would you rather read about, moral centre points and confusing narrative structures, or a gut-crushing accident involving a hot-air balloon and a stalking drama, combined with the dynamics of a marriage crashing down? I thought so.

Please, everyone, if you’re going to write, do it for the sake of a great story, compelling characters and fine language, and let’s leave the pretentious baggage at home.  No more ‘” F’kugly mindered the goats”* for me, thank you.


*An actual quote from Cloud Atlas, on page 279. At first I thought this was a polite way of writing down a profanity that is pretty commonly used here in Britain, but turns out F’kugly is a name. It does not refer to the ugliness of the goats.

to Travel and to Read

Handwriting occurred on waves,

on leaves, the scripts of smoke,

a sign on a bridge along the Mahaweli River

–          Michael Ondaatje

All I really want for Christmas is just to continue to travel and to read, and hopefully become a little wiser in the process. The above lines are half-remembered from a poetry collection,  called  Hand Writing, that I fell in love with one day while browsing my university bookshop (I didn’t buy it that day and haven’t been able to find it since, alas). It’s by one of my favourite poets and authors, Michael Ondaatje, who grew up in Sri Lanka and in his writing still echoes the sounds and colours of the place, even though he has lived in Canada for many years now. I found myself thinking of his poetry again while reflecting on the past year and some of the travelling I did with my family to South-east Asia, as well as some of the conversations with friends while away at university.

It has been interesting to have so many people from different countries together in one place, especially considering some of the immense differences between our homes, from England to Singapore. At the same time, it seems to me that the world is becoming just a little bit smaller every year that I grow older. While I’m sure that’s an inevitable effect of growing up, it’s clear that the world does change, due to our technological advancement and the tightening of economic structures. Neither is this always a bad thing; who would have thought we would have thought travelling to the other side of the world in less than two days and for a small price would become so commonplace?

My boyfriend expressed the idea well when he mentioned once that he would most want to
travel to places that are likely to change much in the next few years,  because it’s a last chance to get a first-hand impression of a certain point in history. Ironically, he was talking about the United States at the time, as it’s becoming less of a unilateral force, lacking in that 1970s kind of super-stardom which it finds itself (a little indignantly, I imagine) having to share with China and others these days.  For the same reason, I’d love to go all the way to the Far East myself; I think at least part of this has to do not with nostalgia, but with a feeling that this would bring that part of the world closer to me or make it easier to make sense of before everything changes.

Then again, I think Ondaatje’s poems stand as a good reminder that all handwriting, as in the ways ordinary people find to leave their signs on the histories of their country, is not likely to disappear from the world any time soon- at least as long as various forms of human conflict exist, sadly. We found these colour photos on the internet the other day, some taken even before 1920, which really surprised us. Not only because I never realised the technology existed that early on, but especially because a touch of colour really makes a huge difference, in my mind, to a period in time we usually think of in black and white.


                                                                (Iraq, 1917) 

Maybe there is no need to hurry as much as we think, after all

Is Heathcliff a Vampire? In Defence of Emily Bronte

Is there a more commonly misunderstood novel than Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights? I can’t think of one, yet it’s been one of my favourite books for a long time. It’s come to my attention that Stephenie Meyer based her Twilight series on Wuthering Heights, and ever since it’s been almost impossible to overlook the irony of this association – especially since I found out about these special Twilight-themed Wuthering Heights reissues, which is about as appropriate as slapping the Fifty Shades of Grey cover on Anna Karenina.


For those of you unfamiliar with either novel (unlikely), Twilight is about a teenage girl’s crush on a vampire, and Wuthering Heights is the story of a doomed 19th century love affair.

I hear many people don’t actually like Wuthering Heights much, not so much for its style or the language it’s written in, but (probably) more because it defies people’s expectations of a love story along the lines of Pride and Prejudice, for instance. If Wuthering Heights is a love story, it is a very peculiar one. The main characters, Catherine and Heathcliffe, are wild and selfish and love doesn’t exist in their universe, unless it’s paired with obsession, violence, and jealousy. The story is characterised by its all around brutal nature, shaped by the English moors that the characters are doomed to wander around in, with Cathy and Heathcliffe as the central embodiments of these vices:

“On that bleak hill top the earth was hard with a black frost, and the air made me shiver through every limb.”  (Wuthering Heights)

I think this makes people uncomfortable not only because of the sense of alienation the book purposely creates between the reader and the character, but because the love affair it describes is really quite unsympathetic- because fundamentally, it’s not love as much as obsession. Yet, as we shall see, it’s surprisingly close to the version of romantic love Twilight idealizes.

“ I felt a thrill of genuine fear, raising the hair on my arms. The look only lasted a second, but it chilled me more than the freezing wind.” (Twilight)


In fact, those of you who have been unhappy enough to read the books( like me) will know that Bella, the main character, is obsessed with a guy named Edward. He is perfect and beautiful in every way- except for the fact that he’s also a vampire. Edward, in turn, can’t resist the smell of Bella’s blood, and fosters a bit of an obsession with the girl in turn. When Edward leaves her, Bella is so heart-broken that is purposely starts putting herself in dangerous situations for the sole purpose of convincing him to come back to rescue her. The idea of Twilight, then, is of course that literally not being able to live without your significant other is the height of romance:

“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.” (Wuthering Heights)

But in Wuthering Heights, this quote spoken by Catherine about Heathcliff doesn’t speak of love as much as obsession. I think Wuthering Heights is so interesting and controversial because it operates on such an odd relationship between the two characters, which in more ways than one confuses normal boundaries: it’s unerotic, yet full of references to the breaking down of Cathy and Heathcliff’s individual identities. It is unequal in the sense that Cathy is wealthy and Heathcliff, being described as a ‘gypsy orphan’ is not. It even touches on the possibility of an interracial relationship (Heathcliff is described as very dark in appearance and it has been wondered whether he was actually black) or even somewhat incestuous, since the two are together from such a young age.


Cathy and Heathcliff form a bond that runs so deep they consider the other a natural extension of their own person. It is not a healthy love, because they are full of jealousy and violence to the other person, which I think derives mostly from self-loathing, pride and a rage against the class circumstances that make it impossible for Cathy to marry Heathcliff. However, being apart from each other they realize that neither can hope to make any claim to life or indeed, to any form of peace of mind and mental stability without the other to love and torment.

While the subject of Wuthering Heights is debatable, I have no doubt in my mind that it is mainly a picture of obsession and its poisonous effects on love. I doubt anyone in their right minds would give up so much to a lover that the universe itself would turn “a mighty stranger”, if they decided not to call you up some day or moved towns.

 “I couldn’t allow him to have this level of influence over me. It was pathetic. More than pathetic, it was unhealthy.” (Twilight)

So apparently this occurred to Stephanie Meyer at some level, too- her Twilight certainly captures the idea of her obsession with her lover as alien and dangerous, however the idea got left hopelessly behind when she went on to explore the many perks of her vampire as opposed to Bella’s own sense of insignificance:

“I wasn’t interesting. And he was. Interesting…and brilliant.. and mysterious… and perfect.. and beautiful… and possibly able to lift full-sized vans with one hand.” (Twilight.)

Bella’s obsession with Edward not only drives the plot of the books, but also fills up her perceived lack of personality and talents, or perhaps even an identity of her own: there is no need for one as long as she has Edward to worry about.

Of course, I must take my comparison all the way to the end of both stories: the main story of Wuthering Heights is mostly told in the memory of its narrators, and so Catherine is already dead by the time the book begins, mostly from the grief of an unhappy marriage to the wrong man and the loss of herself to Heathcliff.
The narrator sees her ghost slowly driving Heathcliff insane up to the point where he dies himself, cursing Cathy’s memory and yet ordering his body to be buried with her, as to be reunited with the object of his obsession in the end.

The twilight series on the other hand sees Bella painstakingly choosing between her two love interests, in the end getting married to Edward. However, to be with him properly she herself also becomes a vampire and thus dies. Is it too dramatic of me to claim a parallel of deaths here? At the very least, her transformation to vampire is a symbolic death, because it is the end of her own individual life and relationships as a human girl, from now on to be merged with Edward’s vampire identity.

Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” (Wuthering Heights)


The interpreter of maladies

I’m a great fan of short stories because I think there is something particularly poignant about them that the novel just doesn’t share; it’s the way a great short stories lets us glimpse into a character’s life and just get the feeling of a problem or part of the atmosphere. They have a way of ending just a moment too soon –at the moment of revelation, but not necessarily conclusion.

I felt the same way about Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”, her debut collection of short stories which won the Pulitzer back in 2000. Jhumpa Lahiri is an American writer of Indian background, and her stories all have one thing in common: they deal with the personal ‘maladies’ that exist from trying to integrate a person’s original culture and life in a new home.

                                                (Lahiri – isn’t she stunning?)

Most of the stories are about Indian characters   trying to settle in America (usually Boston) and  struggling with love, marriage, or their children, but the title story is set back in India.

“The Interpreter of Maladies” is about an Indian tour guide showing an American family around and feeling for the first time some connection with the American wife on the tour, who is the only one to show some interest in him and particularly in his other part time job, which is in a doctor’s office translating the local dialect of patients in order to help him diagnose their illnesses.

The woman makes a confession to him by the end that he finds particularly disturbing, apparently seeking absolution or some gentler form of the truth, and the ‘interpreter’ realises that there is nothing he can do but give her his honest diagnosis of their situation. It seemed to me like a pretty good depiction of Lahiri herself or maybe all writers in general: they serve as “interpreters” of maladies but can’t always be the healers – apart from concluding (wryly!) that people’s troubles are perhaps no different in Bengal than they are in Boston.

Books not to read this week: Rowling’s Casual Vacancy

I bought and read J.K. Rowling’s newest venture into novel writing, and – oh dear -I didn’t like this book. I know what people who defend it are going to say: it’s not Harry Potter, it’s a book for adults, what did you expect.

Well, I didn’t expect Hogwarts, but I did expect some of the elements the Harry Potter books had – a plot that was clever and entertaining, memorable and interesting characters, and fluent, to- the- point writing. The Casual Vacancy was none of these things. It’s a story about a sleepy fictional village in England, Pagford. In the first chapter, one of its council members dies, creating the eponymous casual vacancy on Pagford’s council. The rest of the novel explores the miserable lives of several characters that represent the middle and lower classes like cardboard cut-outs from a Daily Mail article, while they engage in political and personal struggles to fill the Council’s empty seat. The tension basically boils down to what will become of the Fields, the estate on the village’s borders, full of stereotypical benefits seekers and drug addicts. The characters are not in any way interesting or even likeable. At the best, their teenage children are the most sympathetic members of cast, but not by much.

500 pages of poorly drawn character sketches later and the novel reaches an unsurprising, unhappy ending. It’s rather dreary and depressing, but the novel’s greatest problem is that it’s just so boring. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be an attempt at social satire, but if it was, it failed to be funny or entertaining. It mostly feels like a clumsy attempt at preaching socialism to the reader.  I’m not sure Rowling entirely understood the idea of an ‘adult’ novel either – she mostly seems to consider sex, profanity, and violence to set it apart from children’s’ books. Especially the swearing made me want to cringe:

‘“I ain’ gotta do fuckin’ anythin”, said Terri furiously. “Cheeky little bitch,” she added, for good measure.’
– JKR, The Casual Vacancy, p. 407

J.K. Rowling has said in an interview that she felt like she was free to write anything she wanted, and thus wrote this book for herself. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think  it would have been better if she had kept it for herself: it just wasn’t good. I can’t help but feel that if someone previously unknown had written this, it would not have been read or published.