Reading Round-Up, 7/10/2016

Since I wrote here last, I’ve finished Nicola Barker’s new novel The Cauliflower. I’m wondering whether this was the best place to start with Barker, because I didn’t like this novel very much, but I suspect, from things I’ve heard, that I might like her earlier books. I have Darkmans in mind in particular, a book I remember hearing raves about. Either I’m wrong about this, or The Cauliflower isn’t representative of her other books, and I’m hoping it’s the latter. The novel started out fine: it has an energetic, entertaining, self-aware voice of the sort I tend to like. It’s clearly about fiction as much as it is about anything else, as well as about representation and entertainment generally. But after a while, the voice — or voices, I should say, as there are multiple narrators — started to lose their appeal and interest. The story didn’t go anywhere particularly interesting. It’s set in 19th-century India and tells the story of the guru Sri Ramakrishna and his nephew Hriday who cares for him. The novel is largely about their relationship and the sacrifices that caring for a spiritual master — a highly eccentric, troubled one in particular — requires. I generally am for playfulness, metafictional elements, and formal variety, all of which this novel has, but this one didn’t come together into a coherent — or interesting — whole for me. It was disappointing, but I’m not giving up on Barker yet.

The other novel I finished was Amara Lakhous’s Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet, which I liked a lot. I read it for my mystery book group, which met last evening, and it provoked a good discussion, a large part of which was about whether this was really a mystery or not. Looking at the Goodreads description of the book, I see they call it a mystery, but I think of it in my mind as an anti-mystery, because instead of conducting an investigation into the series of murders that have hit Turin, Italy, where the novel is set, the journalist protagonist just makes up stories to publish in his newspaper. There’s also the question of the titular piglet, who stirs up controversy when it gets filmed wandering through a mosque. The protagonist takes this story a little more seriously, but still, he does little productive or helpful, and instead lets others do his work. The only work he does is trying to make his made-up stories believable. All this is fun, but the novel is also about matters of nationality, immigration, identity, and cultural and religious conflicts. It’s a lighthearted approach to very serious — and timely — issues. It’s a very quick read, but it has a surprising amount of depth packed in.

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