12 August 2008

The Brutal Art (Jesse Kellerman)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa

The product of best-selling bookstore stalwarts, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, Jesse Kellerman (or one of his large brood of siblings, in fairness) was bound to be a writer. What's surprising is that he's pretty good.

It's taken two books, in my opinion, to warm him up for this truly superb third novel, The Brutal Art: a richly peopled, thoughtfully plotted, elaborately sketched story that is as free of genre-imposed formulae and inoffensive orthodox Jewish caricature as his parents' popular offerings are famous for.

Oh, Ethan - how we root for you!
New York art gallery owner Ethan Muller uncovers a cache of brilliant but disturbing drawings by a mysterious artist who has since vanished. And before long, old secrets about Ethan's own family begin to hack away at the fictions carefully constructed by those who want the ugly past to remain safely tucked away.

To be frank, The Brutal Art has two features I usually decry: the use of first-person singular ('I') and random flashbacks. But in this manifestation, both are so matter-of-fact, clean, clear and free of not-so-subtle author's guile that they work - all the while leading the reader towards the delicious brown-paper-wrapped gift that is eventual understanding.

Nicely done, Jesse.


Gifted (Nikita Lalwani)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa

I'm a little freaked out by those popular semi-scathing documentaries on the paranormal genius kids who compete in spelling bees - but more so, by the pushy, scary Nazi-parents who always seem to feature so prominently and so loudly.

Nonetheless, I really got into
Gifted, with its troubled, lonely adolescent protagonist, the maths prodigy Rumika, who stresses herself out so much that she becomes addicted to eating cumin seeds. Yes, really. Raw. More than 100 grams a day.

After writing her A-levels at 14, she's accepted at Oxford, and that's when things go horribly wrong. Because teenage angst, nasty-father-induced pain, horny twenty-something hotties and Ivy League pressure just don't gel when you're 14.

So Rumika runs away.

This little book made me deeply grateful that I was classroom clever in my early teens, but nowhere near clever enough to be really different. After all, it's hard enough to be a teenager without having to be different.

Only one problem with Gifted, really: It's so similar in vein (English setting, Indian cultural dislocation, prodigy plot) to others out there that I forgot I'd read it, started it two weeks after finishing it the first time and only realised after half an hour why the storyline seemed like an old friend.


Novel About My Wife (Emily Perkins)

This book disturbed me so profoundly that I had to sit in the sunshine, cuddle my (nice, normal, stable) husband and take a hot shower, just to get through it. Unusually good writing and familiar, flawed, screwy characters notwithstanding, Novel About My Wife is hard to read – and not just because I’m a relative newlywed.

To sum it up, it’s about a charming neurotic, Tom (“skinnyish, fortyish, English”), with a deeply disturbed but beautiful Australian wife, Ann, and how her psychological demons take over their happy hippie lives.

If you like a book to get inside your head and stay there for a while, unbidden, this one’s for you. And yes, I do have one unqualified ‘nice thing’ to say about it: Emily Perkins writes her male protagonist so convincingly and with such absolute authenticity, that I googled her in case she’d used a misleading pseudonym.

But be warned…

If the intermittent flashbacks throw you off as much as they did me, you may have to read this novel twice – something I simply don’t have the heart for.