Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Imposter Bride

Um, so, it's been a year since my last post on this blog.  I suck.  I'm aware.  Despite having read quite a few fantastic books that I loved last year, somehow I never managed to put fingers to keys to write about them.

Well, you may or may not be pleased to know that one of my new year's resolutions is to read 52 books this year.  So I should have plenty of material (although I'm already running a little behind).  And this week I finished a book that tickled me on the inside (not in a gross way) so much that I remembered, from the deep recesses of my mind, that I used to have a book blog.

The book in question is Nancy Richler's The Imposter Bride.  After a few days of casually reading it on the bus to work, I suddenly became so hooked that I reverted to my childhood habit of constant reading...not just on the bus and underground, or at home, but also whilst walking from my house to the bus or underground. Which is probably a little more dangerous in London than in rural southern Ontario.

The story might sound a little familiar to Mad Men fans.  A jewish woman in Nazi Poland steals the identity of another jewish woman she finds dead and uses the stolen name, Lily Azerov,  to make her escape to Canada.  Before taking the trip, she's arranges to marry Sol Kramer, a stranger living in Montreal.  Acting on instinct, Sol refuses to marry Lily upon meeting her, and instead she marries his brother, Nathan.  Unable to cope with her grief and her imposter identity, Lily soon abandons Nathan and their baby daughter, Ruth.  Much of the rest of the story is told through Ruth's eyes.  She receives cryptic, periodic communication from her missing mother in the form of beautiful rocks sent from various locations around Canada, but longs for more information, although she grows up in a loving family that is eager to make up for the absence of her mother.  The novel also tells the tragedies of Bella, Nathan's mother, who suffers the death of three of her children and is emotionally abandoned by her husband, and Ida Pearl, the cousin of the original Lily Azerov, who raises her sulky teenaged daughter after having been exiled to Montreal by her family and having been physically abandoned by her husband for another family.

The early chapters of the book are dominated by the sense of hollowness Lily feels after losing everything, including her own name, in the wake of the Holocaust.  That Lily feels something about her decision to name on her identity is clear, and that she feels some sense of responsibility to the original Lily Azerov is also clear.  But exactly what she feels (guilt, relief, sorrow, pragmatism?) is left up to our imagination.  Instead, what Richler makes obvious is the cripling, unbearable burden of living in the wake of horror and loss.  Lily is not only unable to exist as a wife and mother, she seems unable to function as a human being.  She forgets to eat, cook, or shop for food; she is unable to sleep during regular hours, and can barely hold a conversation with her new family.

Richler is gifted with the ability to create vivd, evocative pictures with simple, seemingly effortless descriptions.  Descriptions of cold, faceless streets in Montreal, windsept, rainy northern lakes of Ontario, and sun-tinged, pink stones of Jerusalem let those locations breath with a few sentences. When Sonya, Ida Pearl's other cousin writes to her to remind her of their mutual summer vacations with the original Lily, and tells us that "I lost a summer afternoon heavy with the scent of ripening apriocts, the sound of Mama's voice mingling with the notes of Mrs. Gamulka's piano...I don't know how long I rested there in the dappled shade of that courtyard..." I felt a pained nostalgia for a European, summer memory that was never mine to feel nostalgia for.  

Stone walls, beautiful rocks, and uncut diamonds are littered across the novel, reminding us not only of the strength necessary to survive war and genocide, and the loss of lovers, children, and mothers, but also reminds us of the fragility of strength.  The feebleness and flaws of diamonds are emphasized as much in the story as the hardness.  We are constantly reminded that crumbling under tragedy is just as possible as surviving it, and that survival does not guarantee happiness.

Outside of the cities, stones, and strong women, the novel forces us to consider how someone must live, not only after surviving tragedy and horror, but with the knowledge that they are less loved than they should be.  From husbands and wives, mothers, uncles, and lovers, there just doesn't seem to be enough love to go around in this memorable, heart-breaking book.

Really, it's not as sad as I'm making it sound. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go saved me.  Okay, not in any kind of religious, spiritual, or moral way, or any really significant way at all.  What I mean is, Never Let Me Go saved my reading habits.  I was getting dragged down in a murky mire of dull, self-indulgent autobiographies; over-rated, tiresome fiction; and lackluster, forced comedies when I picked Kazuo Ishiguro's novel off the shelves of the Marlyebone Oxfam shop, stuck the sale sticker over Kiera Knightley's chin on the cover, and promptly spent the next 12 hours devouring all 282 pages.  I thought I'd left that kind of reading back in my childhood.

Our heroine and narrator is Kathy H., introduced to us as an adult nurse, but Kathy soon takes us back to her childhood at Hailsham, a mysterious boarding school hidden somewhere in the English countryside, a school that places an unusual emphasis on its students' artistic abilities and prepares them for an unusual and secretive future.  Kathy recalls her friendship with two other students, Ruth and Tommy, and gradually the secret of Hailsham is revealed through Kathy's controlled, gentle, but absorbing narration.  Ishiguro is a master of narratological technique; his quietly beautiful novel The Remains of the Day reads like an exercise in how to create a flawless first person narrative, wherein glimpses of a story are only caught through biased narration.

Don't read the following paragraph if you don't want to know the secret of the story.  Never Let Me Go is slowly revealed to be a dystopian story of a future in which clones are bred so that once they are grown, they may donate their organs to humans in need, and Kathy, Tommy, Ruth, and the other students of Hailsham are these clones.  After graduation each student will spend some time as a care-giver for their fellow donor clones, and then be sent to donate, and sometime after their third or fourth donation, they will "complete", a tidy euphamism for dying.  Kathy learns that the artistic focus of Hailsham was an effort to prove to public that the clones had souls, art being a glimpse into the soul.  The headmistress of the school hoped that in proving to the outside world that the clones had souls, they would be continue to be treated well.  Kathy also learns that the students at Hailsham were lucky.  Most other clone schools around the country treated their students like nothing more than machines and kept them in deplorable conditions.

Why was the story so compelling for me?  I'm struggling to put it down on paper.  Kathy's voice is calm and measured and quiet, but her character is memorable and sympathetic.  She is set off against the compelling Ruth, who is initially power-driven, selfish, and well, ruthless, but evolves to be, not cuddly, but more vulnerable and ultimately generous.  The story itself is compelling and expertly revealed, and the backdrop of windy English seaside towns and sweeping countryside supports a story that is mournful and wistful but at the same time resigned in tone.  Ishiguro forces us to confront the fact that we are facing "a new world coming rapidly.  More scientific, efficient, yes.  More cures for the old sicknesses.  Very good.  But a harsh, cruel world....the old kind world...could not remain."

Perhaps part of what I found so compelling about the story is something that I may be pulling out of thin air.  I  I could not stop making a comparison between the students of Hailsham and animals farmed for human consumption.  Those of you who know me, or who read my other blog Spinach, will know that I am an ethical vegan, so I'm probably a little biased in my reading of the novel.  What's more, I have scoured the Internet in search of evidence that Ishiguro is the slightest bit interested in animal rights, and I've found nothing.  However, the novel certainly addresses our perceptions of what human means, and what it means to have moral value in society, but I also found very practical parallels between the world of animal agriculture and the clones.  In both situations we are dimly aware that most of beings in question are kept in deplorable conditions, wherein "you wouldn't sleep for days if you saw what still goes on in some of those places."  In both situations we have welfarist efforts to improve the treatment of the being; Hailsham students are treated well in comparision to other organisations.  However, in both situations we cannot get away from the fact that sentient beings are being born, raised, and killed for human purposes.  After graduating from Hailsham, Tommy, who was criticised for his lack of artistic ability in school, begins to make small sketches of animals with mechanical insides in the belief that the drawings might be able to earn him a few more years of life.  The students of Hailsham are told that art "reveals what you are like on the inside."  What is on the inside of Tommy?  Animals.  Viewed as machines.

Okay, apparently my interpretation of the book is wrong, and I'm digressing.  Regardless, Never Let Me Go is a beautiful, haunting novel that stayed with me for many days.  It's so good, I'm even willing to watch a movie adaptation with Kiera Knightley in it.  I can think of no higher compliment.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Little Bee

 "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl.  Everyone would be pleased to see me coming," says Little Bee, our eponymous, teenaged, Nigerian heroine.  These first engaging paragraphs of Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee not only draw us in to Little Bee's tale, they also remind us of the instinctive racism that ethnic immigrants are subjected to every day.

Little Bee is a 16-year old Nigerian refugee who flees the Niger Delta oil war only to be kept in a UK immigration detention centre for 2 years.  She is let out illegally with no place to go, no papers, and no prospects.  She seeks out an English couple living in Surrey, Sarah and Andrew, whom she met during the conflict.  Andrew, riddled with guilt over his own inability or unwillingness to help Little Bee at a crucial moment, kills himself upon seeing her face appear in his safe, suburban backyard.  Sarah and Little Bee's lives become intertwined as Sarah tries to assuage her guilt and feeling of complicity in Little Bee's story by attempting to obtain British citizenship for her.

For an Anglo-Saxon middle-aged Englishman, the task of writing in a 16-year old Nigerian girl's voice sounds a little daunting, even riddled with political correctness pitfalls. But the strange part is, Little Bee's story is compelling and absorbing, and her voice is thoughtful and insightful.  We leave the novel madly in love with her.   Her narrative is surprisingly much more convincing than Sarah's.

In fact, if the novel has a glaring fault, Sarah's narrative is it.  Her voice and dialogue are wooden and contrived and it is in writing of a white, uppermiddle class English woman, rather than a Nigerian immigrant, that Cleave falls prey to stereotypes.  Cleave betrays a significant amount of disgust for Sarah's materialistic suburban life, and Sarah comes across as morally wishy-washy and, well, fairly boring.  She is carrying on an affair with an odious man who might as be wearing a black cape and twirling a mustache, whilst tying Little Bee to a railroad for all the likeability and sympathy he is able to drum up from the reader.  Her best friend is so vacuously promiscuous Samatha Jones would find her nauseating.  If Sarah is redeemed at all, it is only because of her eventual attachment and devotion to Little Bee. 

According to Cleave, the novel was partially inspired by the true story of Manuel Bravo, an Angolan asylum-seeker, who after four years of being held in an immigration detention centre, learned that he and his 9 year old son would be deported the next morning.  Because unaccompanied minors cannot be deported, Bravo killed himself that evening so that his son would have the chance to stay in the UK until his 18th birthday.

The novel contains Western guilt in spades, and perhaps one of the reasons Sarah's narrative is so unconvincing is because Little Bee's story of watching family members murdered and fleeing from certain death diminishes Sarah's puerile problems of marital and professional discontent.  Western stories become silly and small, and we squirm with discomfort when we read passages such as "the simple little word horror.  It means something different to the people from my village.  In your country, if you are not scared enough already, you can go to watch a horror film...For one hour you are haunted, and you do not trust anybody, and then the feeling fades away.  Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yoursef that you are not suffering from it.  For me and the girls from my village, horror is a disease and we are sick with it.  It is not an illness you can cure yourself of by standing up and letting the big red cinema seat fold itself up behind you.  That would be a good trick."

Despite the flaws of Sarah's narrative, Little Bee offers us the best of what literary art can do.  The novel puts a human face to asylym seekers and raises awareness to their plight in the UK, but it also reminds us to attempt to try to see the humanity behind statistics and new stories, to attempt to understand other people's stories, and attempt to emphathise more.  We see ourselves in Andrew's inertia and guilt, but hope we would have at very least Sarah's reluctant ability to act.  Cleave encourages his readers to remain engaged in the world, and in this endeavour he is very successful.  I left the novel reminding myself to stay sympathetic, compassionate, and above all, alert and active against cruelty and violence wherever I come across it.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Sentimentalists

Johanna Skibsrud's novel, The Sentimentalists, (UK), (Can), was the surprise winner this year at Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize.  And having recently finished the novel, let me tell you, no one is more surprised than me.  I feel a little bit guilty saying that; The Sentimentalists is Skibsrud's first novel and I generally give new authors some slack for their shortcomings, but, well, actually, I don't really feel that guilty.  She just won a $40,000 literary prize and is probably jet-setting around the globe or lunching with Margaret Atwood right now, and I'm sitting around eating potato salad and writing this blog.

The Sentimentalists deals chiefly in memory and personal legacy, and follows an unnamed first-person narrator, who is dealing with the infidelity of her former partner, and the looming, pending death of her father.  The narrator moves in with her father and his friend in the fictional town of Casablanca, and tries to pry her father's memories of the Vietnam War out of him, which is cool, because I really feel that war is an underrepresented subject in literature these days.  Right?  No one is writing about war, and no one is automatically winning literary awards just for talking about war in their novels.  Right?

What's the problem with the novel?  First of all, it really annoys me when writers don't give their protagonists names.  I'm sure there is some profound, thematic reason for leaving her nameless, but I don't care.  I want to know her damn name.  That quibble might seem like a small thing, but as a character, Nameless Nelly is left as blank as her name.  We're given no reason to care about her.  So I didn't.  And when you don't care about the protagonist of the story, you tend not to care about...the story.

But what bothered me even more was the unforgivably clunky writing style.  I hate clunky writing. To Hades with it!  I know that some people tend to consider writing style to be of secondary importance; according to them, bad writing can simply be something we have to endure to absorb great ideas from an otherwise great writer.  Bull.  Dear authors, hear me now, your writing style IS your novel.  In Skibsrud's case, her novel cannot get away from her needlessly convoluted and wooden sentences.

I don't mean to be overly critical.  I mean, the novel isn't The DaVinci Code, or anything.  There are occasional flashes of brilliance, and glimpses of a great mind.  Just when my eyes were glazing over with the most boredom, some little insight of the novel would reach in and rip my heart out, reminding me of some old pain I had forgotten.  The narrator's father is an almost great character who almost crackles off the page with ornery pain and repentance.  Skibsrud could be a great writer.  But reading this little novel, which only measures about 200-pages long, I was reminded of one of my mother's favourite phrases:  it draaaaags along as slowly as molasses in January.

But hey, maybe she'll get better.  It's only her first novel.  But do you know when some people might not feel the need to improve their craft?  When they're given thousands of dollars and well-respected awards for their less-than-remarkable efforts.

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Blue Castle

Every book geek has his or her own literary rituals and traditions, and I am no different; hence, at the beginning of every spring I pull L.M. Montgomery's 1926 novel, The Blue Castle, (Can), (UK), off the shelf to reread.  This ritual occurs partly because I first read the novel in March at the age of 13 years old, just as the spring was first breaking, and partly because at the time I was suffering through the two greatest cruelties inflicted on Canadians and teenagers: slushly late winters and middle school. 

If you have read the tale, you will recognise why I might choose the beginning of spring to read Valancy Stirling's reviving story of rebirth and rejuvination.  While Montgomery herself labelled the novel, "an amusing little comedy for adults," Valancy and her break from the oppression of her small-minded, judgemental family and society, has meant much more to me than mere amusement (although the novel is very amusing).  If you too remember 13 accurately, you will sympathise with my timely need for a novel about breaking free from small-minded society.  If you too have suffered through a Canadian winter, and died a little inside of happiness at the smell of melting snow in spring, you will sympathise keenly.

The story begins with Valancy Stirling waking one morning with the realisation that the next day she will be 29 years old, and that she has no hope of becoming married and escaping the drudgery of her spinster life.  She lives a joyless existence with her uncaring mother and tiresome, elderly cousin.  Her family views her as a weak, insignificant girl; a poor shadow of her beautiful, charming cousin Olive, who is constantly pursued by suitable bachelors.  She lives a life of dreary obligation and timidity, until one day, bothered by a continual heart pain, she visits a heart specialist, who tells her that she has at most a year to live.

Determined not to live her remaining year under the thumb of her family, she keeps her ailment to herself, adopts a carpe diem attitude, and proceeds to shock her family by behaving exactly as she likes: laughing at them outwardly, and going to live with the town drunk, in order to nurse his dying daughter, who has been shunned by society after giving birth to an illigitimate baby.

Critics have not always responded well to The Blue Castle, finding Valancy's sudden transformation unlikely.  Is this novel a work of great, explorative art?  No.  Is the ending a little predictable?  Sure.  Is it a little sentimental and soppy?  Yes.  Do critics who gripe about things like that probably go home and kick puppies?  I would imagine so.

This novel was originally intended for adults, likely because of what at the time would have considered adult themes, but would now be considered tame for any afterschool programming.  The tone and scope would be perfect for any girl in her early teens, or any adult who wants to escape back to that elfin, enchanted world of L.M.Montgomery. 

The novel is written with Montgomery's unimitatable tone (just ask Budge Wilson), weaving between acidic, witty observations of human nature, and dreamy depictions of the wilderness.  Montgomery gives Valancy the ability to gut her family with her razor sharp tongue, and then escape to dream in the wilds of Muskoka.  This novel is one of the few stories that Montgomery does not set in her trademark PEI landscapes, and the Muskoka that Valancy finds refuge in is full of smoky grey wood cabins, wildflowers, tall pine trees, and purple shadows.

Monday, 28 February 2011


I love finding new, talented authors, especially if I get to jump on the bandwagon right after they've published their first novel.  Such is the case for me with Kathleen Winter and her beautiful first novel  Annabel (Can)(UK).

Annabel is a seemingly scandalous story.  Our protagonist, Wayne Blake, is born with both male and female genitalia, in the heart of rural Labrador, in 1968.  Wayne is raised as a boy, and his mother, Jacinta; father, Treadway; and neighbour, Thomasina keep the secret of his dual sex to themselves.  When Treadway decides he must be raised as a boy (and names him Wayne, the least androgynous name imaginable), Jacinta secretly grieves the loss of a daughter.

As Wayne grows up, Treadway is unable to keep his son's feminine side hidden.  Wayne is pre-occupied with synchronised swimming and European architecture, and has no interest in his father's hunting or other masculine pursuits.  Wayne's physical appearance is more feminine than other boys, and his parents must give him hormones to stop him from developing breasts.  As Wayne matures and learns of his secret, he must make the choice to either accept his dual gender, or continue living as a man.

If you feel that a story about a hermaphrodite is too heavy or disturbing, let me encourage you to pick this book up anyway.  Despite the controversial and seemingly overtly sexual nature of the topic, Winter constantly steps away from making the story sensationalistic.  Instead, she emphasises nature during Wayne's birth, "at the beginning of March, during the first signs of spring breakup of the ice--at time of great importance to Labradorians who hunted ducks for food-and he was born, like most children in that place in 1968, surrounded by women his mother had known all her married life...", reminding the reader that Wayne's duality is an act of nature.

Certainly, the novel contains moments of sadness, shock, depression, and violence, but this novel is not train-crash, I-want-to-look-away-but-I-can't reading in the manner of Angela Carter. Winter's ability to humanise Wayne with delicacy is one of the aspects of the book that I found the most admirable.

Also worthy of admiration is Wayne's supporting cast, who are complex and richly drawn, from the sensible neighbour turned widowed travelling bohemian, Thomasina, to his wistful mother Jacinta, who gave up the city she loves for a rural back country she feels out of place in.  The secondary character that I found most compelling is Wayne's overtly masculine father Treadway, whose macho inability to accept his son's femininity is offset by his love of nature and his dogs, his thirst for reading, and his own inability to fit in with other men.

Also of interest is Wayne's childhood female friend, Wally (several secondary characters close to Wayne are given androgynous names).  Given a somewhat boyish appearance, Wally is in a way Wayne's alter ego, something of a physical embodiment of his female self, Annabel (hence the title).  Winter avoids cliches by leaving Wayne's relationship with Wally without definition, much as Wayne's sexuality as a whole remains up in the air.  

However, by far the most memorable and absorbing aspect of Annabel is the beautiful and evocative depiction of wintry, lonely rural Labrador.  White caribou, snow, and calm rivers pepper a world that is both peaceful and deeply alive, with a "striation, a pulse, as the land drinks light and emits a vibration.  Sometimes you can see it with your naked eye, strips of light coming of the land."  This sense of a throbbing, yet quiet natural world is so absorbing that I felt buried in it for the first couple of chapters.  The beauty and tone of Winter's setting is reflected in the beautiful Canadian hardback edition: a soft natural scene with white and pale, ice blue.

Annabel brings us a new author able to tackle shocking subjects with delicacy, and to bring out the quiet beauty of seemingly tragic lives.  I look forward to many years of being on Winter's bandwagon.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Juliet Naked

Nick Hornby is a rare find: witty, contemplative writing that actually appeals to the mass market.  Hornby's books are very  readable, funny, and full of pop-culture references (the right kind of pop-culture), and contain relatable characters going through emotional dilemmas most of us go through ourselves.  I can't think of any other contemporary writer with this same ability to combine readability with thoughtful prose that stands up to further inspection.  His novels aren't complicated, layered, metaphor-ridden works of great art, but they are as relevant to modern life as they are entertaining.  Well, most of them.  His 2007 novel Slam,  about a teenager who talks to his poster of Tony Hawk to deal with his problems (you know, all those real life, serious, important problems worth giving a crap about that 15-year olds have), was so amatuerishly and condescendingly written that I returned it to the library after reading only a few chapters.

And now we have Juliet, Naked, published last autumn.  Is it as bad as Slam?  Not at all.  I finished it, and enjoyed it, in the way that I enjoy a rerun of Will and Grace:  neither are mind blowing, and I smirk mildly more than I actually laugh, but both provide some level of  comforting mind candy.  But, compared to High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to be Good (which I liked, although apparently no one else did), and A Long Way Down Juliet comes up a little short.  The novel gives us Annie, a 39-year old woman who feels she's wasted her life on her boyfriend, Duncan.   Duncan's life is solely ruled by his obsession with Tucker Crowe, a one time musician who has now inexplicably disappeared off the face of the earth.  Duncan spends all of his time on the Tucker Crowe fansite that he started, and Annie blames his obsession for the fact that she is childless, hates the town she lives in and her job, and has wasted 15 years of her life.  We are also introduced to Tucker Crowe himself, living in America with his young wife and 6 year-old son.  Tucker contacts Annie after she posts a review of one of his albums on Duncan's fansite, and the two begin an online flirtation.

So why doesn't Juliet, Naked work as well as previous novels?  The more I think about it, the more reasons I discover.  For one thing, Annie isn't particularly interesting or sympathetic.  While I never found myself especially annoyed by her, I only wished her well in the way that you wish that nice, boring people well, without really caring what happens to them.  She takes no autonomy over her life, and even by the end of the novel, she still seems to be unwilling to admit that Annie is the boss of Annie, and she blames Duncan entirely for her empty life.  Duncan, I should add, is hardly the over-bearing, machismo boyfriend bent on controlling Annie, making her willingness to blame him even more baffling.  Annie's main beef with her life seems to be that she never had children.  But her nest is empty, not because Duncan refused to have children, but because Annie never even brought up the idea with him.  Take some iniative, woman.  She hands over control to the men in her life, and her culpability in this poor decision isn't sufficiently addressed.  She feels so much contempt for her boyfriend, her boss, her co-workers, and her therapist, that I suppose she doesn't have enough contempt left for herself, but she really ought to have saved some up.  Annie is painted as pretty enough, smart enough, and nice enough, but by the end I was left slightly bewildered that Hornby thought she was interesting enough to carry an entire novel.

Hornby's shown us in A Long Way Down that he's more than capable of giving all of his characters a sympathetic voice.  But in Juliet Naked, while Duncan is occasionally given his own narrative, Hornby seems to be deliberately preventing him from connecting with the reader, and in doing so, he not only removes a potential layer from the novel, he stabs his fellow music fans in the back.  Are we meant to understand that obsessive music fans are completely unsympathetic and that Annie has been victimised by someone else's inertia rather than her by her own?  The novel might have had a bit more bite if Duncan had come to similar dilema about wasting his life, rather than just Annie.  Instead he remains clueless and cartoonish, and I think Hornby misses a trick in keeping him distant.

The most sympathetic character is probably Tucker, despite having spent decades doing nothing in particular with his life, and having neglected all of his children except his youngest son, Jackson.  Tucker's children are fine, each with a wealthy and attentive stepfather who makes up for Tucker's neglect, so his bad fathering doesn't really make the reader like him less (and the only child who seems to mind is annoying as hell).  If Hornby can do anything, he can create flawed, rogueish, but likeable male characters.

The central idea, how to handle realising you've wasted years and years of your life through mere inaction, should be stronger than it is.  Hornby often tackles inertia, stagnation, lack of commitment, and lack of satisfaction with life, and usually tackles these problems thoroughly and thoughtfully, but somehow this central theme never seems to come alive in Juliet.  Quite frankly, this idea should have been an easy sell to anyone facing today's employment market, but I still didn't find the theme that compelling, maybe because the problems that Tucker and Annie face are a little too specific: while Tucker's sudden reclusiveness is well explained, most of us don't know what being a reclusive, inactive but celebrated musician feels like.  As for Annie's problems?  Well, honestly, if you want babies, there are plenty of them around for the taking.  If you hate your town, move, and if you find your boyfriend boring and inactive, get a new one.  We aren't given a sufficient explanation for Annie's inability to change her life, and Hornby doesn't linger in any kind of emotional dilemna long enough to tease out it's relevance to us.

Fortunately, we do still get flashes of Hornby's talent. For instance, Annie's problems are  treated with much more interest when she visits her maddenly old-fashioned and judgmental therapist, Malcolm.  The following exchange between Annie and Malcolm is a moment of Hornby's ability to combine depression and emotional dilemna with playfullness and wit:
[Malcolm] '"Well, lots of people I know have an unhappy or frustrating marriage.  Or a boring one....They put with it...."
[Annie]"....I don't want to be quite content with my unhappy, boring, frustrating marriage.  I want more...."
"Well," he said.  "I'm not sure that's it....You said you don't want to be quite content."
"Yes.  With A Rubbish Life...."
"But people who are quite content don't have a rubbish life," he said.
Annie opened her mouth, ready to fire off the dismissive one-liner that always came to her whenver Malcolm offered any kind of observation, but to her surprise, there was nothing there.  Her mouth was empty.  Could he be right?  Did the contentment count more than the life?"
If more moments like these existed in therapy, psychiatrists would be out of a job, but Annie's therapy sessions are some of the most entertaining and insightful in the book.

Ultimately, Annie is too annoyed with everyone else in her life, and not annoyed enough with herself.  Self-loathing has always been an integral part of Hornby, and we're missing that sentiment here.  I'm sure that a recovery from Slam is in Hornby's future, but recovery hasn't come in the form of Juliet, Naked and it's milquetoast heroine.