Novels of 1991: Five of the Best

Editors note: in celebration of all literary things coming out of 1991, our literary savant, Neve Mahoney, has written a review of her favourite 5 novels of that year.  Feel free to debate the call in comments. 

Sophie’s World

gaarderOriginally written in Norwegian, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World has been translated into fifty-nine languages.  It remains the most commercially popular Norwegian book to sell both nationally and internationally.

Of this 1991 list, Sophie’s World was my only re-read and I was happy to revisit it.  I first read Sophie’s World when studying a unit on philosophy in my Classics class. And if you’re looking for is an accessible way to learn about philosophy, I would definitely recommend Sophie’s World.  (I would also recommend the philosophy-through-jokes book Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar).

The novel opens with Sophie finding letters addressed to a mysterious girl, while she receives lessons on philosophy through an animal messenger.  The author weaves the somewhat dry but very readable philosophy lessons through a whimsical narrative.  The philosophy becomes meta at around the halfway mark, where the novel departs from charming and into something deeply fantastical.

Sophie’s World bends every reader expectation—about what YA can be, the effectiveness of breaking the fourth wall and even the questioning of one’s own reality.  Get ready to throw your suspension of disbelief out the window—and to leave the rabbit’s fur.

Cloudstreet

timwintonCloudstreet, which won Tim Winton the 1992 Miles Franklin award, is considered a classic of Australian literature today.  It follows the coming together of two polar families, the Lambs and the Pickles in a house on Cloud Street.

Cloudstreet contains the usual Winton staples, the sea remains omnipresent and the focus  stays fixed on investigating the psyche of suburban Australian life.  However, these Winton quirks do not feel stale—they pull you into the story, which is woven into a tapestry of perspectives.  It does take a few chapters before you get your bearings, especially the first transition from one family to another.  It feels less like reading and more like watching an impressionist painting take form—small strokes that eventually coalesce into one sprawling epic narrative.  Which of course, is beautiful, but plot-wise, can be hard to follow.

Though the plot trudges along at times, the pacing is worth it for Winton’s pithy and insightful observations along the journey.  For example, in the funeral scene: ‘no one cried; no one was game to.’  In his loving descriptions of Western Australia, Winton shows again his masterful power for choosing just the right metaphor or image to evoke an undeniable Australiana.

With a cast of fleshed out characters that breathe through the page, Cloudstreet is character study at heart, and an mostly unobtrusive Winton sits down to spin the tale of the ups and downs of working-class post-war life.

American Psycho

bret_easton_ellisBret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho captures the zeitgeist of the late eighties/early nineties; a sense of increasing dissatisfaction with Wall Street capitalism and big business consumerism, combined with a rise in individualist thinking.

In Australia, American Psycho is still sold with plastic covering, but once you peer inside and read the gratuitous graphic content contained within, the decision starts to make sense.  But the most important parts of the book, I would argue, are not the graphic elements, but the quieter scenes in-between.

Once I steeled myself for multiple reverential mentions of Donald Trump, it was easy to see the subversive intent of the novel.  Ellis takes a character who should be the embodiment of the American Dream and makes him a psychopath.  Ellis then deliberately links that psychopathy with consumerism—Bateman’s objectification of people, especially women, and a constant repetition of brand names.  To Patrick Bateman, people are products and their clothing additional features.

Ellis breaks all the rules of ‘good’ storytelling, which is irritating, but entirely deliberate.  For example, Bateman’s conversations go nowhere, with little subtext.  Ellis tells us everything.  On one level, it’s statement about all of the characters superficiality, but on another, the writing is uncomfortably close to everyday conversations.  Rather than adhering to dialogue conventions, Ellis subverts reader expectations to hammer his point home.  Psychopaths live among us and have normal conversations too.

However, though you can understand artistic decisions intellectually, it doesn’t always make for enjoyable reading.  An adage I’ve learnt from writers is, ‘strengthen other virtues.’  Meaning, you can break rules, but there needs to be something to counterbalance this in order to not alienate your readers.  Ellis created an important novel, but while showing us the depravity of his subjects, makes it hard to find other virtues.

Wilderness Tips

atwoodAlone in the list of novels, Margaret Atwood’s Wildness Tips is a collection of short stories.  However, this is not a vanity project on Atwood’s part.  Always confident in her own style, Atwood’s prose is both readable and elegant.  The short stories were well selected, all with distinctive narratives and characters while still coming together to create a cohesive thematic whole.

Though the stories are often tinged with nostalgia or recollection, each story manages to maintain a relevance in 2016.  ‘Weight’ deals with domestic violence and gender politics of the workplace; ‘Uncles’ takes on the other side of the ‘dragon lady’ stereotype; and ‘The age of lead’ blends non-fiction with narrative in pursuit of the age-old question: will we become like our parents?

To me, ‘Weight’ felt especially wry, this passage in particular summing up the cynicism of the text: ‘With men, Molly was a toad-kisser…I was different. I knew a toad was a toad and would remain so. The thing is to find the most congenial among the toad and learn to appreciate their finer points. You had to develop an eye for warts.’

And while Atwood’s sly social commentary is there in each carefully chosen word—‘Uncles’ in a post Trump/Clinton world feels especially poignant—but the joy of reading her work comes from stepping into worlds fully-formed.  By the end of each story, Atwood had evoked something in me, I was contemplative, indignant, longing—but most of all, wanting to go read it again.

The Kitchen God’s Wife

atanThe Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan follows the lives of a mother, Winnie and daughter, Pearl.  The novel opens with Winnie asking Pearl to go to her cousin’s engagement party.  The novel begins in the present and is told from Pearl’s point of view as she negotiates her marriage and a complicated relationship with her mother, before it switches to the past, with her mother Winnie narrating her life in China before migrating to America.

The real highlight of The Kitchen God’s Wife is the dynamic mother–daughter relationship that Tan brings to the foreground.  Though at odds, their past and presents lives parallel as both women struggle with a duality of self.  Pearl navigating her life as Chinese–American, occupying a limbo between Chinese and American values.  While Winnie had to overcome the Confucian ideas about women to recreate them for herself—the kitchen god’s wife; as goddess rather than victim.

Tan balances both an intimate tale of mother–daughter bonding and a sprawling epic.  The Kitchen God’s Wife delves deep and wide with larger than life settings and a struggle against adversity to a penultimate and satisfying conclusion.

 

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