Another round up from the bookshelves of allonymbooks. This week some new reads and an old favourite.
Hoffman is well known for infusing her novels with a magical realist quality, indeed many reviewers describe her novels as modern fairy tales. But while both of these novels are not in some senses magical realist at all, they are suffused with that feeling magical realism and fairy tales share, of a subtly distorted view of a familiar world, as though through very old glass. What Hoffman does so well in both of these novels is to draw on elements from the natural world (lightning, animals, gardens) which in another context would have the reader question whether what she was writing was ‘true’, but in these novels one believes everything she says, simply because the narrative is so authentic. The place of the ‘real world facts’ – for example the biological effects of being struck by lightning – in these novels is not to drag her characters down to earth, but rather the opposite, to inflate the realms of possibility, to extend our understanding of something we thought we knew. The other aspect of The Red Garden of particular appeal to non-American readers perhaps is that the chronological sequence of stories gives insight into how small American towns established, shifted and changed their identities from their founding through to the present. Although the stories are about generations of families, visitors and strangers, the town of Blackwell, MA, is a character in itself.
Many years ago, allonymbooks was living other lives, among them playing the piano with more enthusiasm than talent. A happy chance encounter in a university bookshop led to the purchase of Paul Micou’s lively novel about a French child pianist prodigy, written through the eyes of his teacher. It was an introduction for allonymbooks to the unreliable narrator, a notion which did not filter through in practice until writing took the place of piano playing in later life. But the lesson most strongly learned for both reader and writer was the difference between truth and authenticity. Just as Blackwell, MA has its own personality in Hoffman’s The Red Garden, so the wild and impossibly difficult solo piano masterwork Death Spiral by Chanat is the other key character in The Death of David Debrizzi. So how could it be that this extraordinary work and its tragic composer were not listed in the university library’s copy of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians? Was it possible that the reader had been so seduced by the brilliantly authentic description of a piece so technically demanding, so insanely innovative, so virtually unplayable that she had not even considered that such a piece might not actually exist? The disappointment at the piece being fictional lasted for many years until allonymbooks’ first encounter with Lawrence Block at the Listowel Literary Festival in the mid 1990s. A fellow participant in the workshop asked him whether Armstrong’s Bar, of the Scudder novels, actually existed. Block replied by asking whether it actually mattered. The other participant said of course it did. There was a long silence. And the ghostly strains of a long-imagined piece of piano music filtered through the late spring sunshine.
And still to read:
Please do share your recommendations with allonymbooks. Comments always welcome.