Tuesday, January 31, 2012

2 Short, Strong Novels (and 2 New-to-me Narrators)

Here are a couple of novels that between them didn't take up eight full hours of listening. (Generally, adult fiction runs nine to sixteen hours or so, in audio form.) They each pack a heck of a punch, though, and will continue to rattle around in my brain for a good long time.

Justin Torres's debut We the Animals is delicious. He instantly sank me into the world of three half-white, half-Puerto Rican young brothers living in Brooklyn. Living? Tumbling, running, running away, tussling, tugging, fearing, diving headlong into life. They define themselves in conjunction with and in opposition to each other, as close siblings (I should know) do.

Our storyteller is seven when the book opens, and the baby of the family. His parents are babies, too - all three boys were born during Ma's teens, so her coming of age is refracted through the prism of their growth. Ma has issues born from the struggle to make an adult life while still a child herself, as does Pap. But though the parental struggles are visible, it's the relationship of the boys that drives the narrative.

It's that relationship that defines the narrator, as well, which makes the short final section the anchor it is. It has weight and heft, and it suddenly plunges down and stops the narrative's progression in its tracks, makes the whole thing revolve slowly round, but keeps it secured at the same time. The narrator's somewhat self-destructive coming out is the key moment where he is defined in opposition to his brothers, and his parents, but what none of them can see in the midst of the crisis is that being one of the three Animals is still by far the best and most important way that he defines himself.

It's super-powerful, and narrator Frankie J Alvarez (who is a new voice for me) tells it with aplomb. He captures the passion and immediacy of boyhood without being saccharine or sentimental, and knows just when to slow down so Torres's carefully strung words can speak distinctly, and when to let the rush of images and experiences build to a crescendo of feeling.

Julian Barnes is the 2011 Booker Prize winner for The Sense of an Ending, another brief but weighty novel. I've enjoyed a bit of Barnes over the years - especially when I was living in England, or in the recently returned, newlywed with a writing degree days. What I'm saying here is that Barnes's protagonist Tony has a vaguely pretentious intellectual friend Adrian, who is a type I recognize. Tony and his pals absorb Adrian into their group at school, allowing his musings on philosophy and history to help define their own interests. They all head off to university and separate lives, though Tony can't help circling back to thoughts about Adrian when Adrian takes up with his ex-girlfriend Veronica.

Cut to forty years later, and Veronica's mother leaves a bequest to Tony in her will. Tony's life had proceeded smoothly - a marriage, a career, a child, a divorce, a retirement - but Adrian's and Veronica's stories were not so unaffected. In dealing with the bequest, Tony is startled, stunned even, to find his memory of those youthful actions is false. His relationships with Adrian, with Veronica, with Veronica's family, and with his own family are all clamoring to be reexamined.

In many ways, Tony is in a second adolescence, hearkening back to the fascinations of his first. Not just sex, but friendship, the study of history, and self-definition. Barnes keeps it all circling the same drain, themes chasing each other's tails, so that the ending promised in the title is never quite attainable.

Richard Morant narrated this audiobook, and it was my first encounter with his work. He did a number of Barnes's books. He also, sadly, died last month. I enjoyed the pleasant, well-pitched tone of his narration, which was overall simple and unobtrusive.  

1 comment:

  1. I've been meaning to read both of these books, so I'm glad to know that both audios are good!