Monday, 10 September 2012

Black Jesus

One of the great things about having a Kindle is the Daily Kindle Delivers Deals. This is where a book costs 99p for a 24 hour period. Not only do I like it because it's cheap, but it encourages me to read outside my usual pick of classic literature.

Black Jesus by Simone Felice was one of the ones I bought because it was on offer. The blurb on the website told me it was about a Marine, nicknamed Black Jesus, who has just come back injured from Afghanistan and an unusual dancer who is running away from an abusive boyfriend.

It's a bit of a clich├ęd salvation romance story, where two isolated and troubled people come together and release each other from their situations. Gloria, the ballet dancer who has had her dreams ruined, flees across an American landscape on the back of a Vespa scooter and finds the junk shop that Black Jesus' mum owns. She comes in and allows blind Black Jesus to have a transcendent moment that allows him to realise that he's always been metaphorically blind and now he has Gloria and can see in a metaphorical but-he's-still-actually-blind sort of sense. It's a little bit twee and suggests that disability, drug dependency and post-traumatic stress disorder can all be solved by a kiss at a creek.

The characters are two dimensional and predictable. Black Jesus is the standard survivor-soldier, who is troubled by what he's seen at war and this can only be solved by drugs or woman; Gloria, the key to salvation and the innocent and hopeful victim; Ross the abusive and controlling boyfriend who has a bizarre mental breakdown. There are a few cameos from music loving transvestites; recorder-playing, drug-abusing hippies and trash-talking drunks to give an 'edgy' reflection of modern American society.

Simone Felice is also a song-writer and this is evident in his writing style. Music and lyrics are a major theme of the book; but it's his metaphors that give the game away. They are short, they sound good, but when you take time to consider them they don't actually mean anything. There were a few passages where I was left wondering what he was going on about. Another thing that annoyed me was a lack of consistency. The narrative was third person but would often slip into the stream of consciousness of one of the characters. This is fine. Virginia Woolf does it, and she does it well. Simone Felice does not. Sometimes the shift is unannounced and confusing, sometimes it's shown by italics, which is also used for lyrics or announcements coming from the radio, or quotation marks. Pick one and stick with it.

Despite all this moaning, I didn't start the book with high expectations, so I wasn't disappointed. It was an easy read, it was fine for a commuting book and I don't miss the 99p I paid for it.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Having recently read Wuthering Heights, which is often heralded as a passionate triumph, and being somewhat disappointed, I was worried the same would happen when reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. However, Tess of the d'Urbervilles was brilliant. It was full of tragedy, tension and beautiful, descriptive writing. Even though there are many events that are deeply tragic and terrible, they are subtly and sensitively written.

Spoiler Warning!

Tess is a brilliant, virtuous character, the archetype of rural innocence. Although she may be seen as too-good-to-be-true and therefore an unrealistic portrayal of femininity, I think the way Hardy portrays her allows her to be both believable and loveable. Despite her constant pursuit of honesty and integrity, she constantly has to struggle against the evils of this world until her simple soul is finally and desperately crushed. You know from the offset she wasn't made for this world.

Alec d'Urberville may be the obvious villain of the story but some find Angel Clare a more detestable figure. It could be that Angel Clare was, at first, a potential source of happiness and hope for the wronged Tess, but he desperately lets her down. Also, Angel Clare never really has to suffer for his actions; Alec d'Urverville gets his comeuppance but Angel's failure not only remains unpunished but he has the chance to live a life of love and happiness: one that Tess couldn't. I feel, however, that Angel redeems himself at the end for enabling Tess to have a few days of true happiness and for not abandoning her when he could have done.

Hardy's writing style is really beautiful. He constantly forewarns the reader of upcoming tragedies, which adds to the horror of watching Tess innocently trying to conduct her life. Whilst she is at Talbothays Dairy, the reader has a conflicting sense of joy and hope at Tess's young love and the ominous feeling that it isn't going to last, which of course, it doesn't. When the forewarned tragedy does strike, it is never overwrought or melodramatic. Even outpouring of emotion seems justified by poor Tess, as her fate is just horrific. One example of a brilliantly crafted sentence that states the sorrow with superb simplicity is when Tess's child dies:
"So passed away Sorrow the Undesired—that intrusive creature, that bastard gift of shameless Nature, who respects not the social law; a waif to whom eternal Time had been a matter of days merely, who new not that such things as years and centuries ever were; to whom the cottage interior was the universe, the week's weather climate, new-born babyhood human existence, and the instinct to suck human knowledge."
The whole section of the baby's baptism and death is just brilliant.

The ending, although good, was not what I expected. I always knew how Tess's life played out, but the section is Sandbourne was not how I imagined it. It was perhaps appropriate that Tess was taken away from her usual rural setting towards the end to show how she had no place in this increasingly urban and industrialised world. I was a bit disappointed that Tess had abandoned her sense of morality, but I suppose that was the point. I realised my expectations and hopes that Tess could yet have a life of purity and innocence were foolish; something Tess herself had already become resigned to.

Favourite character: Tess, obviously.
Least favourite character(s): Tess's parents, John and Joan Durbeyfield. They are constant sources of bad ideas and poor advice, being utterly useless in protecting Tess or providing her with any good prospects.
Favourite section: The baptism and death of sorrow.
Least favourite bit: Tess in Sandbourne.
Critical issues: Tess is too good and pure, something feminists may have a problem with; all the men are idiots; the issue of class and wealth.