July 13, 2007 archive

Of Mice and Men – Book Review

The best laid schemes o’ mice and men
Gang aft agley [go oft awry]
And leave us nought but grief and pain
For promised joy!
by Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 – 96)

John Steinbeck’s classic novel, Of Mice and Men, is one of three novels he wrote exploring the California agricultural labor phenomenon of the 1930s (the other two were The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle). In this novel, Steinbeck focuses on the friendship between two men – George and Lennie – and their shared dream of owning land and a home of their own. The story is simple and occurs over the span of three short days on a Salinas Valley ranch where the two men have found work as farm hands. Thematically, Steinbeck explores the idea of dreams and how plans may go awry  through forces beyond one’s control. Given the time in which the novel was written, his handling of the mentally handicapped Lennie is tender and compassionate. Steinbeck describes setting beautifully, and wraps it around the characters whose personalities emerge through their dialogue and relationships with each other. There is enough foreshadowing to predict the novel’s tragic end.

Highly Recommended.

The Bone People – Book Review

They traveled lightly, the Gillayleys, not loaded down with trivia. But then, in the end we all travel very lightly indeed. Nothing to carry more substantial than memories…and maybe that’s the heaviest baggage of all… -From The Bone People, page 323-

Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize winning first novel – The Bone People – is a searing, brutal novel about love, violence, language, and mystery.  Set in the bleak environment of a New Zealand sea town, the novel introduces three damaged characters all seeking something more in their lives, all having suffered loss and trauma.

Kerewin Holmes, a frustrated artist who turns to alcohol for solace, has built herself a tower – a self-imposed prison, where she can hide from the world and stave off the pain of her family’s rejection. She holds tenaciously to her philosophy of life: “…To care for anything deeply is to invite disaster.”

Joe also chooses alcohol to warm his soul. He has lost his wife and is trying to raise his adopted son Simon alone. Joe’s love for Simon is a mixture of tenderness and brutality.

Simon, perhaps the most heart wrenching character in the book, is a child with a mysterious past. Washed up on shore after a shipwreck and breathed back to life by Joe, Simon is mute, angry and disturbed. These three characters come together in a clash of culture and ambivalence and burn themselves into the heart of the reader.

Hulmes writing is poetic and lyrical, filled with mystical ambiance and beautiful imagery. It ebbs and flows like the sea, building to a terrible climax. At times, feeling battered and exhausted, I wanted to put the book down and not finish it; but each time the words and the story lured me back. There are some beautiful and haunting passages in this novel, such as when Simon gifts Kerewin an amber, gold, turquoise and coral rosary and Kerewin thinks:

Who owned you?
Prayed with you?
Played with you?
What prayers, said, in what moods?
Joy, or grief?
Love, or anger,
Or tears?
-From The Bone People, pages 140-141-

Hulme treats the reader to a great deal of Maori culture, weaving Maori phrases throughout the novel (she also provides their translation in an appendix). The book veers into mystical realism at times, which I believe actually added to the mood and flavor of the story rather than taking away from it.

The Bone People is not an easy read – it is disturbing and rips at the reader’s heart – but, ultimately its words and imagery, its message about what it means to be human, will linger with the reader long after the last page is turned.

Highly recommended.

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