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Friday, February 22, 2019

The Witch Elm (2018) by Tana French

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American-Irish author/actress Tana French makes a bid for literary fiction status in The Witch Elm
Book Review
The Witch Elm (2018)
by Tana French

  Tana French has done well in the crime fiction genre world with her Murder Squad series about Dublin police detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddux.  The first volume in that series, In the Woods, won a drawer full of genre awards and she followed up with five more volumes, with the last being published in 2016.   In October of last year she published The Witch Elm or The Wych Elm in the UK, which is her first stand-alone novel and which has led critics to claim that perhaps French is better described as a writer of literary fiction, not genre.  This is a subject of great interest to me, so I took the chance to check out the audio book version of The Witch Elm- at over 20 hours it was a bit of a chore for a murder mystery, but I was heartened by the fact that my Libby library app told me that over 150 people were waiting for the chance to listen to The Witch Elm after I was done- which is as popular a book as I've ever read via the library.

  French combines her murder mystery pedigree with a couple of capital L literary fiction motifs: The Anglo-Irish country house novel, which triggers recognition from any series student (or critic) of literature; and the unreliable narrator, which also goes back centuries and is a technique central to the development of the novel as an art form.   Add that to the fact that French has escaped the genre constraints of her six volume set of conventional police detective fiction, and I can see where fans would say that French has made the jump to literary fiction, that The Witch Elm is good enough to win prizes outside of genre fiction awards, and that perhaps In the Woods deserves belated elevation as "the best" example of crime fiction from that particular time and place.

   I wasn't convinced.  Perhaps the mistake lay in choosing the Audiobook version- although The Witch Elm is only 330 pages, the 12 hours Audiobook felt endless, largely because the narrator is (at the beginning of the book) a smug, 20 something cis white male from a privileged Anglo-Irish background.  You can't get less sympathetic than that.  And while of course you quickly realize that life is not going to be a beach for this guy, it's also hard to really care what happens to him.  The genius of this book is the way that French turns this lack of empathy to surprising ends within the plot, but ultimately I didn't think it eclipses the crime fiction genre category.  To be clear, French sells buckets of books, so critical opinion isn't going to make or break her career, and the genre critics love her.  I mean it is great genre fiction.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Cage (2018) by Lloyd Jones

Book Review
The Cage (2018)
 by Lloyd Jones

  One hot tip I've got for navigated the Ebook department of your local big city public library:  Books often come out in Ebook format in the USA before they are published in hard back form when the author is being released physically in another English speaking territory, i.e. Canada or the UK.  This has all to do with the vagaries of international publishing, but increasingly the Ebook is being published simultaneously in advance of a physical release.   Thus, you can follow literary fiction in the UK and be reasonably assured that there is, at least, an Ebook version of the latest release by an English language author not from the United States.

  Lloyd Jones is in that category, he is an author from New Zealand with a lifetime of literary fiction that didn't make it internationally and one book that did, Mister Pip (2006), which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and made it onto the Booker Prize shortlist in 2007.   The Cage is his third novel since that career peak.  The three ratings on his American Amazon product listing make it clear that The Cage has not garnered a very large audience in the United States.  Like many of the contemporary works of literary fiction I read, The Cage has a dystopian angle:  Two unnamed men, called strangers, are kept inside a cage on the grounds of the hotel, where the hotel owner and a "trustees committee" of local luminaries, refuse to let the men out for a two year period.

  Much is not explained- the men never give their names, never tell where they are from except that they are fleeing from an unknown catastrophe.   No description of the larger world is given, the technology and language of the people described would seem to place it in the late 20th century- for example, in an early part of the novel the strangers are taken up in an airplane in attempt to locate they place of the disaster they are fleeing;  but there is never an exposition on the larger society which allows a small village to imprison two men without cause for a multi year period without a single intervention by a larger authority.

  Jones is obviously operating in allegorical territory, with the cage referring to the way western societies are treating refugee-immigrants. Given Jones' locale, the treatment of refugee-immigrants by Australia, which is particularly cruel form of indefinite confinement on a series of incredibly remote islands, seems like a good point of reference for the kind of governmental behavior Jones is condemning. 

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