Monday, 27 July 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

“My head leaning against the carriage window, I watch these houses roll past me like a tracking shot in a film. I see them as others do not; even their owners probably don’t see them from this perspective. Twice a day I am offered a view into other lives; just for a moment. There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.”

There have been a slew of bestsellers lately with each plot more twisted and grotesque than the last. I guess you can call it the Gone Girl affect; I am sure there is no one reading this review that has not read the book or watched the movie, no one who does not know of the surprise twist. That’s another popular plot design lately, the surprise devastating plot twist. Not that I am complaining – I love being completely taken aback by an author. Being able to surprise a reader, especially an avid reader is a pretty impressive feat. It’s not just about adding something from out of the blue, it needs to make sense with the plot, its needs to tie in nicely without being too obvious or too out of left field, it needs to be believed, it needs to not be predictable. It needs to be done right, and when it is the effects can be devastating. The problem, of course, is that the more twisted books that are published, the more people are going to anticipate a big twist, thus decreasing the effects. Especially with the success of Gone Girl, every twisty book nowadays is using it as a comparison, and knowing a twist is coming takes away half the fun.

It’s funny, as I am writing this I am looking over my copy of The Girl on the Train I see no actual comparisons to Gone Girl, but I know that I have heard it from everyone I know who has read this book. And it’s not hard to see it – although I think that I am finding Paula Hawkins’ book more subtle but somehow more intense?? I know that doesn’t make any sense… In Hawkins’ story, the eponymous girl on the train is Rachel Watson, a depressed, overweight alcoholic who takes the train into London and back again every day. The train always stops at the same place and Rachel has become slightly obsessed with the couple who lives in the closest house. She has named them (Jess and Jason) and made up lives for them, trying to forget her own life by imagining the happiness in theirs.  “I can’t really see her of course. I don’t know if she paints, or whether Jason has a great laugh, or whether Jess has beautiful cheekbones. I can’t see her bone structure from here and I’ve never heard Jason’s voice… They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy I can tell. They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me, five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.” One day Rachel witnesses something that she shouldn’t and the next day Jess, whose real name is Megan, disappears. The story is told in alternating diary entries from Rachel and Megan, and sometimes Anna, Megan’s neighbour and Rachel’s ex-husbands new wife. None of them can be trusted. Rachel tells the story of her failed marriage and descent into alcoholism, Megan tells of her weaknesses and demons and Anna provides a too cheery account of her perfect life. All three women are connected and I am pretty sure that all three are liars.

As Rachel embroils herself further and further into Megan’s disappearance it’s harder and harder to know what is really happening and who or what you can believe. I don’t want to spend too much time comparing this to Gone Girl – but just to explain my earlier statement – you don’t know that anyone is lying in Gone Girl, so you’re taking everything at face value for the first half of the book. Here, you know everyone is cracked, so it puts you more on guard. You know no one can be trusted… but it hard to tell what’s real and what’s not and it’s impossible to figure out what has really happened!  I’m still waiting for a twist, but I think the genius of Hawkins is that even knowing what you do, you don’t really know anything. Any twist that comes still has the potential to shock and awe. ( I am not going to lie, I am kind of hoping that there is no twist… that maybe Rachel can be trusted – I think that would end up being a bigger shock than anything!)

The thing is, I find there is something (faintly) sickeningly satisfying reading about completely messed up people. Reading about someone more messed up than me, watching their slow descent, knowing that they are probably lying to you… I think it might be messed up that I like it as much as I do. But it’s like a train wreck. I can’t look away and I need to know what’s happening. I want Rachel to redeem herself,  I want her sadness to be true because it gives her more humanity. But as she says herself ‘There have been many slips, on many staircases’ so she’s never sure what one she may be lying about at any given time, and if she doesn’t know… how are we to?

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The books brought brilliance to my life, and they brought an understanding: Life is a story. Everything that has happened and will happen to me is all part of the story of this enchanted place – all the dreams and visions and understandings that come to me in my dungeon cell. The books helped me see that truth is not in the touch of the stone but in what the stone tells you.
And the stones tell me so much. But if I get some things wrong, then please forgive me. This place is too enchanted to let the story go untold.

Capital punishment is a pretty heavy and loaded topic. People tend to feel very passionate about it, one way or the other; or they can feel completely divided about it. That’s how I feel anyway. It’s never been a topic that I have been able to come up with a definitive opinion about. I can easily see what a drain jails are on the economy. Given the current Conservative climate in Canada; while crime is at an all-time low, the jail population is at an all-time high; and the cost of keeping an inmate incarcerated is significantly more than you or I make in a year. Any of the inmates who would potentially qualify for the death penalty in Canada – and there are not many – cost even more than that. Obviously, you can’t state cost as a main reason for invoking Capital Punishment but once you start talking about other factors the conversation gets a little more complicated. For me – my biggest fear is the chance that the system has gotten it wrong, that the situation is not quite what we thought it was; that maybe the person convicted might be innocent. It’s happened before. I am not sure I could ever take that risk. Laws need to be uniform and consistent and I think the only way that capital punishment would ever work would be a case by case, ridiculously in-depth analysis – and let’s face it, there is no way the justice system is ever going to fork out that kind of money.

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with a book called The Enchanted – well, capital punishment is the heart of this story. Yes – this is a magical, beautiful book, all about the horrors of prison and the questions surrounding the death penalty. Our story takes place in the dungeon of an ancient stone prison where those on death row reside waiting for the end. Our narrator is an unnamed man who has been incarcerated, one way or another, for most of his life. He is a voracious reader and uses books to escape the depressing realities of his life; in fact – he has completely re-imagined the world he sees, he has filled his world with golden horses stampeding under the earth and little wee men hammering away inside the stone walls of the prison. He tells us the story of York, a man condemned to die, who actually wants to die; the lady, a woman tasked with saving those on death row, who is determined to save York, whether he wants it or not; and finally, the fallen priest, who honestly hasn’t figured in to the story a whole lot so far.

I’ve been having a hard time reviewing this book, and I am not sure why. I read the first half rather quickly; the narrative flows beautifully, and although the things I am reading are not all that pleasant (actually they are downright unpleasant) – the language and the story are beautiful. I keep using the word beautiful and I know that I should break out the thesaurus and come up with a different word here, but beautiful seems the most appropriate. The most horrible things are happening, but the way they are described, with such a melancholic yet enchanting tone, you almost don’t realize what you are reading – but the message is still seeping through. The Lady – we never learn her name – although being hired for the case, has taken it on like a personal cause. The more she looks into York’s background, the more similarities she sees to her own and she is determined to make him want to live. Be warned – their stories are heartbreaking. More importantly though, their stories bring to light a sad reality about the way the world works and the reasons why people end up where they are.

Our narrator is a mysterious creature. He job is to tell us the story of York, the lady and the fallen priest; although there is no way he could know most of it. Through him we learn of the horrors of prison life, and also the beauty of literature and losing yourself in a book. In between his narrative we glimpse pieces of his life and his philosophies, the horrors of his own story “My soul left me when I was six. It flew away past a flapping curtain over a window. I ran after it, but it never came back. It left me alone on wet stinking mattresses. It left me alone in the choking dark. It took my tongue, my heart, and my mind.”

I am not sure if I want to recommend this book or not, honestly. I am keeping my fingers crossed for a non-devasting ending, but I’m not holding my breath. Some stories are beautiful for the sake of beauty. Some stories carry an important message. I think it takes real genius to combine the two. Rene Denfeld makes you think without you even realizing you're thinking. The prison system, here in Canada and in the States is atrocious, and if we can’t actually make any changes, maybe we can at least become more aware.

“In here, names end. We end. Like periods end sentences. Like the ropes and the bullets and the hot electric nodes and the frying chair and, eventually, the cool milky tubes. Even if we live out our lives in here, we end. Our creation is over.”