The Luminaries (2013) by Eleanor Catton


I finished The Luminaries a week ago and knew immediately that I’d need to give myself a bit of time to mull it over before I could do it justice here on the blog. I’ve given it a great deal of thought since then and now I’m ready – armed with a fried egg sandwich, a cup of tea and some ginger cake (a feast fit for kings) – to try and put my thoughts about this wonderfully complicated, intricately plotted epic novel into words. Whether those words will make sense or not is anybody’s guess but here goes.

“A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past.”

I have a special place in my heart reserved just for massive, door-stopper novels like this one. They give you so much more room to settle into the story, especially when the plot is as complex and meticulously put together as this one. The Luminaries takes place in New Zealand – making it the latest stop on my Around the World tour – in the newly established gold rush town of Hokitika. When Walter Moody arrives fresh off the boat to seek his fortune in January 1866 he discovers a town in turmoil; in the past few days a local hermit has been discovered dead in his shack, a prostitute has been found lying insensible in the street and a popular young gold digger has disappeared without a trace. Shortly after his arrival Walter inadvertently stumbles into a secret meeting called by twelve local men to try to make sense of these strange circumstances. As new information is revealed he’s drawn into a bizarre tale involving hidden gold, the opium trade, blackmail, revenge, long lost family and star crossed lovers.

Oh it’s complicated. So complicated, in fact, that whenever I skipped reading for a day or two I almost always had to go back and skim read several pages again to remind myself of all the tiny but very, very important details I might have forgotten in the meantime. I could never tell whether my natural forgetfulness might one day come back to haunt me. Thankfully it never really did, mainly because as new information is revealed the explanations are revised and the tale retold, often several times over so you’re never really sure how much of any version of the tale you can really believe. It’s the intricacy of the plot, combined with the way each character’s fate is intertwined with all the others, that makes this feel like an authentically Victorian novel; there’s something very Dickensian, or even a bit Wilkie Collins about the way Catton does this. It’s brilliant.

The first 360-odd pages of the novel are set during that first evening in the Crown hotel as the twelve gathered men recount their tales to the newly arrived Moody. From hereon each of the remaining 11 chapters gets shorter and shorter, reflecting the changing phases of the moon until by the end each one is shorter than its descriptive title. To take the astrological theme further Catton associates each of her main characters with a star sign and uses charts to determine their changing fortunes as the novel progresses. It’s a clever experiment in form and although I still don’t know what exactly it added to the novel I liked the idea and on the whole I can appreciate the way in which Catton draws all of this together. However, as I think this over now I keep coming back to those decreasing chapter lengths and I wonder whether, if I’m honest with myself, I might not have found them a little unsatisfying really. The problem, I believe, is just that the briefest shrunken chapters come right at the end of the novel when you’re hungry for more information, not less. It wasn’t really something I thought about until after it was all over though.

This is really the only small complaint I have to make about this novel. I’ve been raving about how much I enjoyed it to everyone who will listen ever since. It’s the cleverest, most engaging novel I’ve read in a really long time.

I can recommend doing a google image search for Hokitika if you’re looking for some striking travel porn to make you truly desperate to visit the west coast of New Zealand. Spectacular.


Top Ten Tuesday: Thankfulness


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week, in honour of our friends across the pond, is all about things we are thankful for.

I have a lot to be thankful for. Most of it isn’t going to make it onto this particular list, which I’m going to just devote to the bookish things in my life that I appreciate. Here you are:

1. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Did I mention that I’m loving this? You could ask me why but I’m not sure I’d be able to tell you.

2. Lunchtimes. I’ve recently made friends with two other like-minded people who also sneak to the same corner of our building for quiet reading at lunch time. We’ve started combining food, reading and general book related chit chat for an hour and it’s very nice indeed.

3. This blog and my blogging friends. Remember the days when I used to keep my opinions about books to myself? Nah, me neither. This is so much better and makes my reading experiences so much richer. Thanks for all for the support and recommendations over the past few years.

4. TV adaptations. I have both Amazing Grace on Netflix and the BBC’s adaptation of Howard’s End (god knows I love a costume drama) all saved up and ready to watch. Now I just need some time in which to watch them.

5. Amazon wishlists. Grrrr. I hate having to write this but having a list of all the books I want to read saved in one place where other people can view them too does make things a bit easier. I am rubbish at remembering what I’d like for Christmas.

6. Annual leave. I have one whole week off work coming up immediately after Christmas and I fully intend to spend every last second of it reading. It can’t come round quick enough.

7. The prospect of writing an end-of-year summary. I truly believe that writing a final sum up of my reading year could be my favourite part of the blogging calendar. I take it very seriously. I have a spreadsheet.

8. Winter ghost stories. Once I’ve done with The Luminaries I might try to squeeze in a couple more of those classic ghost stories. Reading them by firelight feels pretty cosy at this time of year.

9. My local library. It’s brilliant and I don’t say it enough.

10. This list being over. It was surprisingly difficult. Does this make me a bad person?




The Bookseller of Kabul (2002) by Asne Seierstad


I am currently completely and utterly absorbed in Eleanor Catton’s book The Luminaries, which explains my recent short absence from the blog. I’ve been reading it for the past two weeks or so but am only just nearing the end of part 1 so I still have some way to go. It’s eye-wateringly complicated but luckily I’m so in love with it that I don’t really seem to mind that most of the time.

It’s a very different read to the last one I finished, The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist and in September 2001 she entered Afghanistan to cover the ongoing crisis that followed the attacks on New York. In Kabul she met a successful bookseller, known as Sultan Khan in the book, and struck up enough of a friendship that she was able to convince him to allow her to live secretly amongst his family for four months as research for an upcoming book on the war and its impact on ordinary families. This is the result of that stay: a detailed portrait of Khan’s large family (with pseudonyms of course) as they pick out a life in cramped conditions amongst the country’s war ravaged capital. She begins her story with an account of Khan’s marriage to his second wife but goes on to devote a portion of her book to each member of the family in turn.

It’s for the Khan women that Seierstad clearly feels the most fondness and I like the fact that she deliberately tries to shine a spotlight on the experiences of those whom she feels are dominated and repressed by traditional Afghan culture. Khan is clearly a complex man and he and his sons don’t come out of the story quite so well; you get the distinct impression that Seierstad, as a western woman used to more freedom, must occasionally have found their behaviour frustrating. This is all explained in Seierstad’s simple and down to earth style which I really liked, particularly at those times when she provided brief explanations of the background to the war and life under successive Soviet, Taliban and pro-democratic governments. I don’t know a great deal about Afghanistan’s troubled past so I appreciated the uncomplicated writing style here.

Although she lived amongst the Khans for some time Seierstad never actually references herself in her story telling; instead she writes as a sort of omniscient narrator with a privileged insight into the private lives of those she’s observing. I’ve given this some thought now and I think that this is at the heart of my reservations about this book; it’s not obvious whether this is a piece of journalism or fiction and the fact that she never acknowledges her role makes you wonder how many of those secret thoughts and feelings she attributes to the Khan family are real and how many are imposed upon their subjects. Is it true, for example, that Khan’s younger sister hides love letters from her secret boyfriend in her room? And if so, why would Seierstad reveal that information in her book when she’s already gone to great lengths recounting truly horrifying stories of women who have been beaten or even killed by their families for the same behaviour? It makes no sense. And really, when I think about it, I’m not sure I believe that even spending four months fully immersed in a family from another culture would give you this sort of insight into who they are: only the Khans know that.

I think there’s a bit of me that wonders whether this is all a betrayal of the trust of the family who welcomed her into their home. And I also wonder whether I might have more faith in Seierstad if she was more open about how she came to have such an insight into this family, if instead of painting herself out of the picture and treating the Khans like characters in a novel she recounted real conversations and experiences that she shared with them. I can understand that her apparent absence from the storytelling might give the appearance of impartiality but I think more openness might add more credibility to her portrayal of the Khan family. Khan himself, and his relationships with those in family, are probably more nuanced than Seierstad gives them credit for and her tone could be criticised for being occasionally (and I’m sure unintentionally) condescending.

So on the whole it’s fair to say I have mixed feelings on this one. I explained all of this to a friend the other day and was told that I’m possibly overthinking things here and that I might be better off just enjoying The Bookseller of Kabul as it is without worrying so much about all the details. She’s right of course; there’s definitely no enjoyment to be had if you question the reliability of every narrator in every book you read. Having said that, I’ve changed my mind about using this book for my next stop on the Around the World in 80 Books tour. I’ll wait until I’ve read Khaled Hosseini’s book And The Mountains Echoed (still in the TBR pile) before I cross Afghanistan off the list entirely.

Top Ten Tuesday: Masters of Disguise


TTT is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. This week is a Halloween freebie.

In my last two Halloween TTTs I looked firstly at literary villains and then at my favourite Agatha Christie mysteries. This year, in recognition of all those who’ll be dressing up in spooky costumes, I thought I’d list books featuring characters in disguise or, more broadly, characters who are not necessarily who they say they are. It’s difficult to do without revealing some big plot developments so I’ll keep my comments brief. Watch out for potential spoilers though.

1. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Jean Valjean’s efforts to leave his criminal past behind him quickly unravel when revolution is sparked on the streets of Paris. He navigates a precarious path, always wanting to do the right thing but risking losing everything if his true identity is discovered.

2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J K Rowling. There are hundreds of examples in the Harry Potter books of characters who try to pass themselves off as someone else using Polyjuice Potion or some other magical spell. It happens a couple of times in this book alone.

3. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Edmond Dantes creates an elaborate fake identity as the mysterious Count in a plot so extravagant, so intricate that for much of the book you have no idea exactly what he’s trying to achieve. But when it happens it’s brilliant.

4. The Princess Bride by William Goldman. ‘Why do you wear a mask and hood?’ ‘I think everybody will in the near future,’ was the man in black’s reply. ‘They’re terribly comfortable.

5. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. There’s so much cross dressing and disguising going on in Shakespeare’s plays its difficult to know where to begin. I love Viola though.

6. Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks. I expect there are also probably hundreds of spy novels that would fit the bill here. Faulks’ story centres around a female agent who passes herself of as a French citizen in order to gather information on Nazi activities.

7. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. It has just occurred to me that this is the fourth book set in France on this list. Coincidence? The switching of identities is only a minor plot device in this one but it is definitely the best part (with the exception of any scene featuring Madame Defarge. Obviously.).

8. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. I guess you could have any masked superhero/vigilante really but I chose this one because it feels quite real and very modern. It’s also pretty damn sinister.

9. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. I’m wracking my brains to remember whether the reader is party to the villains’ devious plans or whether the reader discovers the ruse later at the same time as the other characters. If anyone fancies reminding me in the comments that would be appreciated but if not I might just have to reread it (which would be frankly lovely).

10. Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine. I happened to catch the last half hour of the film a few weeks ago and was reminded of how much I enjoyed this book. An estranged father disguises himself as a nanny in order to spend some time with his children; it’s ridiculous and mad but a little bit brilliant.

These were the first ten I thought of but let me know in the comments if you think of any more….

The Enchanted April (1922) by Elizabeth von Arnim


For the first time in a very long time I am nearly, oh so nearly, up to date with blog posts. All those half written reviews I had languishing on the laptop for weeks on end have now been posted as part of a three week long burst of activity which probably clogged up a few news feeds and inboxes; sorry about that.  Thankfully I might now be able to go back to more regular, less erratic blogging habits.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The Enchanted April is a really lovely book with which to welcome in this new era, especially because it perfectly demonstrates the impact of blogger recommendations on my ever evolving reading habits. I hadn’t really heard of von Arnim until a short while ago and it was only noticing the consistently favourable reviews popping up on the various book blogs I follow that encouraged me to give this one a try. Now that I’ve read it I can wholeheartedly add my voice to all those many others that sing its praises. It does mean that I’m very conscious that all the words I want to use in this post – ‘enchanting’, ‘gentle’, ‘delightful’, ‘magical’ and so on – are going to sound quite tired though. I’ll try to refrain from being too gushing or trite if I can.

 To those who appreciate wistaria and sunshine, small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. X, Box 1000, The Times. 

When the above advertisement appears in The Times, Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot see a chance to escape from their quietly miserable lives in wet, dreary London. To defray the cost they place an advert of their own in the paper and recruit two strangers as holiday companions: formidable Mrs Fisher and the young, cynical Lady Caroline Destler. Each woman arrives at beautiful San Salvatore with her own unhappiness in tow but after the petty squabbles and misunderstandings die down the relationships between them thaw and the castle begins to work its magic.

This is a warm, witty novel and one of my favourite things about it has to be von Arnim’s character observations. She moves carefully from one character to another, giving each one’s complex, changing, conflicting feelings her equal and undivided attention. They’re so beautifully, so minutely drawn that I could see traces of myself in each one (even when I didn’t want to). There’s something quite sincere and personal about the way she approaches her characters so that even when they’re at their most selfish they’re strangely sympathetic. In theory the spoilt Lady Caroline – whose wealth and beauty have become something of a burden – should be truly insufferable but I was absolutely on her side in every possible way. Of course it must be hard to be so attractive to everyone. Of course she needs peace and quiet in which to take stock of herself. Of course she needs a retreat from all those ‘grabbers’ out there. Maybe I too was seduced by her ethereal looks and melodious voice.

It probably goes without saying that I was also a huge fan of the setting. I read somewhere that the castle of San Salvatore is based on a real medieval castle on the Italian Riviera in which von Arnim spent some happy summer months. Her descriptions of the castle gardens are so evocative. You can feel the heat of the sun through the pages and smell the wisteria on the breeze.

Of course, no novel is perfect and I was a little disappointed by the way in which von Arnim wraps everything up towards the end; I’m clearly a bitter, resentful person because I still can’t forgive the menfolk their poor behaviour quite so easily. It troubled me that none of the real issues at the heart of all the loneliness in this novel were really addressed and I finished with an awful niggling feeling that maybe the magic of San Salvatore wouldn’t continue to work after the characters returned home. But I am trying not to think about that one too much. This novel is so damn charming that you can’t let negative feelings like that hang about for too long.

The Story of the Bagman’s Uncle (1837) by Charles Dickens


Image courtesy of VictorianWeb

The latest instalment in my collection of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories is extracted from The Pickwick Papers. The extraction isn’t quite seamless – it begins and ends rather strangely and there’s no explanation of who the bagman is or what we’re doing here – but it does just about work, I think, as a standalone tale. It makes you wonder, though, why they didn’t just pick one of Dickens’ many actual ghost stories for this compilation rather than go to the laborious task of untangling one from a much larger novel. I have many unanswered questions about this collection. It’s odd.

Anyway, the story goes that after a raucous night with some dear friends the bagman’s uncle is stumbling drunkenly home through the dark streets of Edinburgh when he comes across a yard full of old, discarded mail coaches.

The doors had been torn from their hinges and removed; the linings had been stripped off, only a shred hanging here and there by a rusty nail; the lamps were gone, the poles had long since vanished, the ironwork was rusty, the paint was worn away; the wind whistled through the chinks in the bare woodwork; and the rain, which had collected on the roofs, fell, drop by drop, into the insides with a hollow and melancholy sound. They were the decaying skeletons of departed mails, and in that lonely place, at that time of night, they looked chill and dismal.

He’s rather taken with the sight of them but his efforts to make a closer inspection ultimately lead to his being whisked away on a ghostly journey through the night with two ruffians wielding swords and a beautiful (of course) young lady for company. There’s a duel, a further flight through the night, a kiss and then the uncle awakens to find himself back in the yard nursing his hangover.

Despite my misgivings about the choice of story I did quite like this one. It isn’t remotely spooky but it did give me half an hour of strangely jolly, swashbuckling enjoyment and, like the bagman’s uncle, I too was quite taken with the image of those dilapidated mail coaches glinting in the moonlight. It suffers from the sort of overly sentimental portrayal of women that I often notice in Dickens’ novels but I can sort of forgive it in this case since the object of all that adoration is a ghostly spectre and not supposed to be an actual living, breathing person. It’s interesting to note how much the bagman’s uncle apparently likes to go about embracing and stealing kisses from unsuspecting barmaids though. These were indeed different times.

Since finishing this and The Tale of Mary Ancel I’ve returned to novel reading and have begun Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April which I’m enjoying immensely. I’m hoping to get a few more of these ghost stories in before the end of the year though.

War & Turpentine (2013) by Stefan Hertmans


We turn tough and get sentimental; we laugh as we cry; our life’s a waking slumber, a slumberous wake; we quarrel with our arms around each other; we lash out at each other while shrugging our shoulders; no part of our bodies or minds remains intact; we breathe as long as live and live merely because we are breathing, as long as it lasts. 

Before the Booker International long-list came out earlier this year I hadn’t heard of Stefan Hertmans but I immediately added some of the finalists, including this novel, to my ever growing to-read list as soon as the news came out. I heard so many positive things about it in the months that followed but resisted getting myself a copy until I went to the library to collect Silkworm a week or two ago and it just happened to be prominently displayed on the neighbouring shelf. Obviously it was destiny.

It took me a little while to get through War & Turpentine; not because it’s a particularly dense book but because it soon became clear that this was one worth taking my time over. It’s a strange novel that seems to straddle a couple of genres but essentially it’s based on the memories of the writer’s grandfather, Urbain Martein, which were written down in three notebooks in the later years of his life. The notebooks were passed to Hertmans on Martein’s death but not read until three decades later. In the first and last parts of the novel Hertmans combs over his grandfather’s life and work pre- and post-war: a poor childhood in Ghent, his father’s career restoring frescoes in churches, his early training in an iron foundry, art school, love, marriage and eventual death. Cutting through Hertman’s story is Urbain’s personal account of his experiences in the Great War, as they were written down in painstaking detail many years later. This is the backbone of the novel and its looming presence colours everything you read before and after.

It’s a little difficult to tell where the line between fiction and memoir really lies here, particularly because Hertmans illustrates his story with images of his grandfather’s sketches, paintings by the great masters he loved and photographs of the places he knew. I think this might be one of the things I liked most about this novel though. It’s almost like Hertmans deliberately allows the edges between art and real life to become a bit blurred because, for his grandfather, they were part of the same story. It occasionally makes for some quite painful reading but in amongst the poverty of Urbain’s childhood and the grim horror of the trenches Hertmans shines a light on moments that have the power to both devastate you and uplift you at the same time. One short scene, which takes place in a  small dockyard church while Urbain is in Liverpool recovering from wounds received at the front, made me quite emotional and I found myself blinking back tears and swearing at myself to keep it together at least until I was in a less public place. Hertman really touchingly shows all the brutal inhumanity of the world (a description of a gelatine factory will make your eyes water) alongside the wondrous and the beautiful: Urbain’s paintings, his mother, his short love affair, the Liverpool church, the beautiful landscape surrounding the battlefields, the sight of animals escaping the warefare… It’s a sad novel really but the contrasts give it a kind of hopefulness.

Hertman’s skill as a poet is evident here in the touchingly lyrical language. It’s so finely crafted it feels almost like a delicate work of art in itself. I really enjoyed this.

The Story of Mary Ancel (c1838) by William Makepeace Thackeray


William Makepeace Thackeray (courtesy of Wikimedia)

It’s usually at about this time of year that I return again to Rex Collings’ collection of Victorian & Edwardian Ghost Stories, published in 1996. This is my third visit to the collection which is, sadly, now looking rather battered and suffering from some mysterious blue staining round the edges. I always look forward to reading these short stories – there’s something quite cosy about them. Unfortunately that annoying, pernickety part of my brain really struggles with the misleading title; some of the stories in this collection are neither Victorian nor Edwardian; some of them are also not ghost stories. I think The Story of Mary Ancel just about qualifies as Victorian (my brief internet search suggested that it was definitely printed in The New Monthly Magazine in 1838, the year after Victoria’s coronation, but I don’t know whether this was its first appearance or a reprint). There is no ghost though and I think you’d be stretching the truth if you were to describe it as ‘horror’. It’s really not very scary. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it; I think I would just like the book to do what it says on the cover.

Mary Ancel’s tale is set in France after the revolution and describes an attempt by a rogue named Monsieur Schneider, a friend of the infamous Robespierre, to force this wealthy young woman into an engagement. He could pop the question in the traditional manner of course but decides to pre-empt any difficulties by turning up at Mary’s family home with a guillotine and executioner, brought especially all the way from Paris, and threatening to do away with her father if she doesn’t agree to be his wife. What a pig. She doesn’t have much choice so she agrees to the engagement but thankfully Mary is a sensible, clever sort of person and not ready to get pushed about by the villainous Schneider.

“I am told that you Englishmen consider it cowardly to cry; as for me, I wept and roared incessantly; when Mary squeezed me for the last time the tears came out of me as if I had been neither more nor less than a great wet sponge.” 

The story is narrated by Mary’s cousin Pierre, who has amorous intentions of his own, and he goes on at great length about what a virtuous, worthy and (of course) beautiful young woman she is. Frankly, Mary is much better than all of the useless men in this story and she manages to deal with the whole ridiculous situation with surprisingly little fuss. Go Mary. For this reason I didn’t mind Pierre’s sentimentality too much, especially as Thackeray also uses it to poke fun at the earnestness of Pierre’s youthful attachment to her. There’s some quiet, dry humour hidden away here if you look for it.

This was my first time reading anything by Thackeray, although I’ve had my eyes on Vanity Fair for years now, and he didn’t disappoint.  The next story in the book is a Dickens one which gives me hope that we might actually get a ghost. Hurrah. Hopefully we’re in safe hands.

Silkworm (2014) by Robert Galbraith


I made a quick lunch-break dash to the library in order to pick this up and still had enough time to read some of the first chapter on a park bench before heading back to the office. It was a lot of effort to go to for a book I hadn’t really planned on reading so soon after The Cuckoo’s Calling – usually I get a bit bored if I work my way through a series too quickly – but the recent TV adaptation was getting discussed in great detail in my office and it was driving me kind of nuts. I was worried that if I didn’t read it soon then someone was going to spill too many beans and ruin the ending.

(Incidentally, I am currently a week behind on ‘Bake Off’ and having a very similar problem. I have to go make a cup of tea whenever my colleagues start discussing it.)

In Silkworm’s opening chapters, private detective Cormoran Strike takes up the case of missing author Owen Quine. Quine’s last act, in the days before his disappearance, was to send draft copies of his latest bizarre novel to everyone he knows including his wife, his mistress, his editor, his agent, his biggest rival and his publisher. Unfortunately for them the novel contains some vicious, thinly disguised poison-pen portraits and reveals some deep, dark secrets they’d probably rather not share. Under the circumstances it’s clear that there are several people who might have liked to get their revenge on Quine, or prevent him revealing further unpleasant truths, so Strike and his assistant Robin have to work out precisely who appears in the novel, who read it and who has the most to hide.

It’s a much darker, grittier novel than The Cuckoo’s Calling but I don’t think I enjoyed it quite as much. The plot is cleverer and just like Cuckoo it’s carefully put together with no worrying loopholes or loose ends. I’ve said before that I really love the way that Rowling builds vivid, believable worlds around her characters and this isn’t an exception. I particularly like the way that she describes real London places; it makes Strike’s world feel tangible. Similarly, however, I’ve also said before that I wish some of Rowling’s later novels were shorter and I stand by that here too. I think this novel wouldn’t have started to drag so much if Rowling was better at staying on topic. She wastes too many precious words on scenes that don’t matter, that slow the pace and become an annoying distraction from the real story. I liked Silkworm but would have enjoyed it even more if it had been a few pages shorter.

I’m also starting to wonder whether Robin might be a better central protagonist. Strike’s ok but I think telling the story from Robin’s point of view might actually feel just a little fresher. At the moment her relationship with Strike is straying into clichéd territory and I’m scared it’s going to get a bit predictable in the end. I’ll keep on with the series, since I’m quite enjoying them and they’re very easy to read. Maybe Rowling will surprise me.

For Two Thousand Years (1934) by Mihail Sebastian


“Exactly the same thing happens with that age-old call for death which is always present somewhere on Romanian streets but audible only at certain moments. Year after year it resounds in the ear of the common man, who is indifferent, in a hurry, with other things on his mind. Year after year it rumbles and echoes in street and byway and nobody hears it. And one day, out of nowhere, behold how it suddenly pierces the wall of deafness around it and issues from every crack and from under every stone.”

My last stopover on the Around the World in 80 Books tour was in the West Indies for Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. For my latest trip I’ve made a completely impractical (but metaphorical) leap over the ocean back to Europe to enjoy a brief stay in Romania – thankfully cost and carbon footprint aren’t a worry here or I might have planned the whole trip better and found a more efficient route 🙂

For Two Thousand Years has only recently appeared in English and I didn’t know much about it before it caught my eye in Waterstones a few months ago. Sebastian’s semi-autobiographical novel takes the very loose form of a diary covering about ten years in the life of a young Jewish man who, when the novel opens in 1923, is an impressionable student at the university in Bucharest. I found the opening passages unsettling, mainly because these were, of course, times of great political and social upheaval and the narrator suffers a great deal at the hands of anti-Semitic mobs on his way to lectures each day. It provokes much argument amongst his friends about what the future holds for the Jews in Europe but the narrator is much more introspective; he wonders what being Jewish means to him personally and whether he will ever really be accepted on his own terms in a Romania which repeatedly rejects and threatens those like him.

The book becomes less brooding – but no less intense – as he moves away from the university and I found it interesting to observe the ways in which his views evolve as he embarks on new ventures and makes new friends. He’s much less self-conscious from here on and there’s less soul searching so I’m sorry to say that I enjoyed these chapters a little more. I hope it isn’t spoiling things too much if I say that the novel takes a quietly sinister turn in the final pages. I was in a noisy hairdresser’s salon at this point in my reading, with a head full of foils, and I wondered later whether the incongruous setting might have made these chapters more shocking than they really were. I’d be interested to know whether anyone else found them as gut-wrenchingly painful to read as I did, much more alarming even than the violence displayed by the racist mobs in previous chapters.

My engagement with this novel went in fits and starts. We didn’t get off to the best beginning but there were several long passages that I loved, I mean really loved. I was so taken with some of Sebastian’s language and imagery that I ended up underlining several long passages in pencil, more than I have with any other novel I’ve read recently. On the other hand there’s no escaping the fact that on some occasions I had a hard time staying focussed. At times I was desperate to finish this novel; at others I wanted to savour every word. My feelings switched from one extreme to the other almost continually until the final few chapters when they suddenly fell very much in the books favour. I didn’t always find this an easy read – for several reasons – but it was beautifully written and haunted me long after I finished.