Posted by: patti | January 13, 2009

Book Shuffle Knows All, Part I

When I wrote my post about Book Shuffle, it had been my intention to write about two novels I’d just read.   But because I have a tendency to follow whatever shiny silver thread I happen to unearth, that review never got written.   That that post turned out so radically different is some proof, perhaps, that I am quite open to discovery.

The two books I read back to back, the two that made me stop and really look at our so-called system, were Love and Vertigo by Hsu-Ming Teo and Island by Jane Rogers.  One is an okay novel and one is an excellent novel, written by very different women, set in very different places.  But both novels are about off-kilter young women struggling to understand the world their mothers created for them.  And both women use stories from their childhood — family stories and fairy tales — to facilitate this understanding.  Both novels also devote an unusual amount of time to the stories behind the names of the characters, even minor ones.

I read Love and Vertigo first:  it is the okay novel.   I’d taken a few days off from reading, and, unfortunately, writing fiction, and I was looking for something to get me back into both.  I bought this novel at Bookends on Charing Cross Road a handful of years agao, and it survived two book purges.  And I opened to the first line and remembered why: “These are the myths I tell about my family and, like all myths and lies, simultaneous buffers of love and betrayals of trust.”

Yes!  Even if the book turned out to be disappointing (sadly, it did), here was a book that would talk to me about family, about stories, about truth and lies — just what I needed.  Book Shuffle knows all!

Love and Vertigo is the first-person account of twentysomething Grace Tay, who returns to her family’s home in Singapore when her mother commits suicide.  Grace begins to see each of her family members as more than just characters in her story; they begin to appear to her as real people, people who loved and were loved in all the wrong ways.  And she begins to obsess over her family’s history — her own memories and the stories she’s been told — and in the obsessing, some of which is delightful, some of which is annoying, we learn about three (four?  maybe four) generations of a large Chinese family who emigrate first to Singapore, then Malaysia, and end up in Australia.

The book is set in a part of the world I want to learn more about, and I was fascinated by the intricate politics and violence that dominated the backdrop.  But the prose is in turns spot-on (Love made a mess of everything) and painful (When he enters her, he spurts the black hole that is inside him up her body), and I’m afraid the painful turns outnumber the direct, readable ones.

It’s a good story, and with a fuller summary, you’ll want to read it.  (And I know where you can get a free copy . . . .)  I thoroughly enjoyed parts of it, particularly the early chapters (there’s one called “Sonny the Cod God Killer” that is laugh-out-loud funny and could — should — stand on its own), where there was less of Grace and more family history.  Grace is not only an unsympathetic narrator, she’s whiny and insufferable, but without the depth that might-could make her interesting.

But there were two things I cannot forgive about the novel — which is, to be fair, Hsu-Ming Teo’s first, and the winner of the 1999 Australian/Vogel Literary Award.

The first thing got under my skin in the second chapter and never went away.  One of Grace’s uncles is called Donald Duck, and we never find out why.  Now, most of the characters in this story have odd or significant names (Grace’s troubled mother is called Pan, which, we learn, is short for Pandora).  But all of the unusual names are explained, because the connection between a character’s identity and name is a major theme of the book (told you Book Shuffle knows all).  But not Donald Duck.  Every scene he was in, I found myself going back to the beginning of the book, looking for the explanation I’d missed.  No.  I hadn’t missed it.  It isn’t there.

The second thing.  The book begins and ends with Grace masturbating, and there are scenes throughout that have her “turning her face into the pillow.”  Now, I’m no prude, and honestly?  More novels need more scenes of women masturbating.  Masturbation is Grace’s only cure for insomnia, which, okay, fair enough, but these are the worst scenes of female masturbation ever written.  Tell me I’m wrong:  “Urgent, violent strokes that seem intent on ripping flesh from bone. Eventually, at last, I manage to jerk myself off.”

I love first novels — love them.  They show me what not to do, they give me hope, and most importantly, they teach me compassion.  Which is why, when I placed Love and Vertigo back on the shelf right on top of Jane Rogers’ Island, I thought fondly of her uneven first novel, Separate Tracks, and decided it was high time I read something else by her.

And so Island will be Part II.



  1. My sister wants to read more about women masterbating… Think I need to go throw up a little

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