My November Miscellany is coming a few days early this month, as tomorrow I will be focusing on our wrap up of Novellas in November.
Obviously November has been all about novellas for me, but I have managed to squeeze in a few other reads, movies and music throughout the month.
The Promise by Damon Galgut
I read The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut quite a few years ago now and remember being very impressed. For some reason I never read anymore of his work, until now, when his shortlisting for the Booker Prize (and subsequent win) was the impetus for me to pick up The Promise.
I was not disappointed. I absolutely loved this exploration of South Africa through the history of one family, which uses the ingenious device of centring each of its four sections around a funeral.
The novel begins in 1986, with the death of Rachel, a 40-year-old Jewish mother of three on a smallholding outside Pretoria. The drama of the novel turns on a promise that her Afrikaner husband, Manie, made to her before she died, overheard by their youngest daughter, Amor: that Manie would give their black maid, Salome, the deeds to the annexe she occupies. Manie has no intention of doing so, nor do the rest of the family, but this is a promise that Amor cannot forget.
As well as being a sprawling family saga about a dysfunctional Afrikaner family, Galgut weaves three decades of South African socio-political history into his tale in a strikingly subtle way. Structurally, the book is fascinating, but even more impressive is the cinematic manner in which his narrative voice travels, skipping from person to person without ever losing focus. His third-person narration darts between characters, mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence and at times, the authorial voice steps in to make a point of his own.
The Promise is sure to be one of my books of the year.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Another book of the year for me is Oh William! which sees Strout revisit Lucy Barton from her previous novel My Name is Lucy Barton.
In Oh William! Lucy, now 64, is mourning the death of her beloved second husband, a cellist named David Abramson. She finds some welcome distraction in revisiting her relationship with her first husband, William Gerhardt, the philandering father of her two grown daughters. Lucy left William, a parasitologist, after nearly 20 years of marriage, but they have managed to maintain a friendly relationship. Seven years her senior, William is also experiencing unhappy changes in his life, and calls on Lucy to help navigate them. William’s third wife Estelle has left him and he has just discovered he has a half-sister he never knew and he enlists Lucy to help him track her down.
The novel is written in a conversational, relaxed style, with Lucy digressing, going off on tangents, correcting herself and reiterating points she has made before. The novel is written in such a way to seem that Lucy is talking directly to the reader. There is an episodic nature to her reminiscences that is not chronological, so gradually a picture is built up of the relationship that Lucy and William share. The novel becomes a portrait of a friendship and a marriage and explores themes such as how the past is never truly past, the lasting effects of trauma, and the importance of trying to understand other people despite their essential mystery and unknowability.
Having only ever read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, I’m now planning to read as much of her back catalogue as I can!
This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno
A recent article in The Guardian detailed the current ‘golden age of horror writing’ and made reference to Gus Moreno’s This Thing Between Us, which explores grief and loss through this darkest of genres.
Vera and Thiago Alvarez are excited to own their first home, a condo in Chicago, but are plagued by scratching sounds in the walls and cold spots in their home. Then their Itza smart-speaker takes on a life of its own, placing orders for things the couple don’t want, answering questions they never asked and turning off their morning alarms. A missed morning alarm plunges them into a nightmare when Vera, rushing for a train, is involved in a freak accident and dies. Her death is given a political twist, bringing unwanted media attention on Thiago, but as he starts to link the strange happenings with Vera’s death, he starts to question whether or not it was really an accident, or if there is something more malevolent at play.
This Thing Between Us starts strong, featuring some genuinely creepy scenes and a thoughtful exploration of sudden death and the grief that ensues from it. The second half, where Thiago holes himself up in a mountain cabin, only to come face to face with the entity that ruined his life didn’t fully deliver for me, although there are some delightful references to The Shining and other classic horror tales.
Plus, this book has one of the most striking covers I’ve seen in a long time!
The Many Saints of Newark
As a die-hard fan of The Sopranos, I was in two minds about watching The Many Saints of Newark, the feature-length prequel to the greatest TV show of all time. The Many Saints of Newark, depicts the childhood of the teenage Tony Soprano, growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s, specifically the time of the 1967 Newark riots, under the influence of his beloved uncle Dickie Montisanti.
The headline-grabbing casting of the late James Gandolfini’s son Michael as the young Tony actually works well and there is a lot of fun to be had in the portrayals of Paulie Walnuts, Pussy Bonpensiero and Uncle Junior. Vera Farmiga is wonderful as Tony’s hateful and hated mother Livia, while Alessandro Nivola is fantastic as the uncle who will lead Tony down the path of crime.
This is probably a movie for fans of the TV series, because without all the nods and winks to things that happen in the television series, this isn’t the most interesting of mob movies and doesn’t really add anything to the overall story of Tony Soprano.
I really enjoyed Jane Harper’s crime novel The Dry and this adaptation didn’t disappoint. Set in the Australian outback and starring Eric Bana, The Dry features two mysteries in one town, one concerning the murder of a family in the present and the other concerning the disappearance of a girl in the past.
Federal police agent Aaron Falk returns to his (fictional) hometown of Kiewarra following the apparent murder-suicide committed by his old school friend Luke. Luke’s parents are convinced he didn’t kill his family and then himself and ask Aaron to investigate. Set against the backdrop of a devastating drought, Aaron has to face up to something he did in the past in order to get to the truth about what has happened to his friend Luke.
The novel featured judicious use of flashback and the film does the same, building on this most cinematic of devices to dovetail its two narratives.
The Dry is shot beautifully and features some really strong performances, particularly from Eric Bana. It is slow, but that works, building atmosphere and tension before delivering a devastating ending.
After three seasons of Narcos tracking the origin of cocaine trafficking with Pablo Escobar in Colombia, followed by two seasons exploring the rise and fall of Felix Gallardo in Narcos: Mexico, the final season in the decades-spanning franchise concluded its story by focusing on the Mexican cartels that shape the global drug trade today.
This season focused on the mean, moody Lord of the Skies, Amado Carillo Fuentes, who has featured as a bit player throughout the previous seasons, but has now become one of the biggest drug traffickers in the world. Narcos has always been about the players who tried to do something different, who wanted to build their drug empires as legitimate businesses and the impossibility of such an undertaking.
I’m a big fan of the entire Narcos franchise, in particular the way in which it neither glorifies nor vilifies its protagonists. It presents the drug traffickers on one hand, and the DEA, American law enforcement officers who are trying to track them down on the other, but always stresses that without the demand for consumption in America, there would be no Mexican drug trade. This season has some flashy set pieces, particularly an attack on a 40th birthday party, but it also contains a moving and powerful subplot about the murders of women who worked in factories around Juarez—a staggering injustice that still has not found an end.
While all the narratives didn’t fully coalesce, Narcos once again successfully showed that what was considered to be an endemic drug problem in Mexico, was actually a problem of poverty and corruption.
Another quiet month for music reviews, instead I’ve been getting my country on and binging on the amazing Big Thief.
What have you been reading, watching or listening to this month? Let me know in the comments!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!