Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng

“I am a quiet lady, but my imagination is wild and busy.” Isobelle Ouzman

Livia and TsengFrom one island to another, having left the four holidaymakers from elsewhere on Little Lost Island in Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August, I find a not so little, but lost islander in Mayumi, a 41-year-old librarian and resident of another New England island.

With a demanding 4-year-old daughter who has claimed a place in the marital bed, an emotionally and physically distant husband and finding solace between the pages of the books she reads, Mayumi’s life seems to lack something she isn’t aware of, until someone arrives at the library counter to ignite it.

She develops a fixation on a 17-year-old boy, seducing him and slotting him timetable-like in her already routine, controlled life, as if forbidden love is just another aspect of a carefully planned existence, something that be contained.

In addition, she can’t help but allow a friendship to develop with the boy’s mother, her equal desire for friendship and understanding crossing neurotic wires that seem destined to create an emotional explosion.

Publisher, Europa Editions describe the book as:

“With echoes of  The Giant’s House and shot through with literary references, the debut novel by Asian-American poet Jennifer Tseng is a book that leaves a lasting impression.”

and Kirkus Reviews:

Tseng explores time and place, isolation and connection, and veers more toward the lyrical than the lurid.”

while the author herself said:

“I love the premise of someone in a mundane setting, then a stranger walks in, and everything changes.”

Jennifer Tseng

Jennifer Tseng

It was a strange read for me and while many authors succeed in bringing the reader inside a perspective that might be counter-intuitive to their own instinct, it felt as though I remained on the outside of this narrative, never able to crossover into the world Muyumi inhabits, through her narcissistic obsession.

I haven’t read The Giant’s House, although reading the blurb of it I can see why comparisons might be made.

orhan-pamuk-the-museum-of-innocenceThe only reading experience I can compare this too is Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, which is a very long treatise on the experience of obsession, it is so long that you can’t help but experience the tedium of an unrelenting obsession.

Tseng’s exploration is unique by virtue of it being a female obsession, confusing the roles of mother, lover, friend and wife.

It is a reminder that in the quietest of environments, the imagination is actively at work and you never know when inspiration or obsession might alight.

I leave you with a quote from the book, where Mayumi is feeling frustrated by the pending departure of the young man for a couple of weeks over the summer:

“You know I didn’t come here to mix with your sort. If anything I came here to escape such excitements.”

What had in it the seed of a compliment came off sounding like a snub. He drew back slightly as if I had just hit him.

“What I meant to say,” I persisted, determined to salvage the moment and bolster his confidence, “is that this is a highly unusual circumstance. I’ve lead a very sheltered life, sheltered from good as much as from bad. I’ve minded my own business. I never sought thrills. I’ve been content to avoid the company of youth and beauty. Before you, I had no desire.”

“With all due respect, May, I find it hard to believe,” he finished in iambic pentameter, “that a woman with your brain and your appetite came halfway across the world in search of nothing.”

He was well-mannered yet restless; his eyes studied me as though I were a page in a book. I had the sense of being one among many, of being read intensely but fleetingly by a reader who would soon turn the page.

In addition to being a poet and fiction writer, the author Jennifer Tseng is a librarian on Martha’s Vineyard, a New England island.

Pumpkin Island Maine

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker

Ok a few truths.

TruthAboutHarryThe Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair was originally written and published in French. The Swiss author, 28-year-old Joël Dicker’s first novel wasn’t a big hit, but he followed it up by writing this 600 page satire of  a young American man (his age) who writes one bestseller and then can’t write anything else.

His pushy agent and publisher threaten law suits and ruin unless he meets a deadline on his next big thing. Rather than write, he visits his ageing writing professor in New Hampshire, who was once a young man who wrote a bestseller and then didn’t write anything else. He gives him advice that prefaces many of the chapters:

“Books are interchangeable: People want a story that excites them, relaxes them, entertains them. And if you don’t give them that, someone else will – and you’ll be history.”

More truth.

Harry QuebertYesterday I was in the popular French bookstore FNAC (a kind of WH Smith equivalent) in Lyon and saw La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert is still in the Number 1 slot. I saw it the day before in the giant supermarket Carrefour in the same position. It’s been a bestseller for over a year in France.

I do love watching a book become a runaway success and don’t always read them, but this is a book in translation, double victory –  the rights sold to 35 countries and translated into 37 languages and it won two prestigious French book awards.

The Harsh Truth.

However despite all the accolades, I have to be honest and say that I did not enjoy the read, it offered very little in terms of what I like to get from a book and worse, it annoyed me immensely in parts.

Maybe Not Your Truth Though.

But first the story, because it is a somewhat compelling read which many have and still may enjoy; full of twists and turns, a disappearance,a cold case reopened, concerning teenage girls, older men, appearances not what they seem, everyone with something to hide and more twists than an old-fashioned telephone cord. So many twists in fact, I can’t remember who did it. No, everyone did it, didn’t they? Well, Dicker certainly has a skill in making you think they’re all capable of murder.

So Marcus Goldman is living the life of a rich and famous writer in New York on the strength of a debut bestseller, when his writers block starts to have menacing consequences and he has to come up with a solution, quickly. He visits his old university professor Harry Quebert, whom he had kind of forgotten while he was busy being famous and pursued by actresses and other celebs. Not long after his visit, Harry is accused of the murder of Nola Kellergan (Nola, Lola, Lolita?), a 15-year-old girl who disappeared 30 years ago, whose remains are discovered, implicating Harry Quebert.

Marcus returns to Harry’s home when he is arrested and makes the investigation of his innocence his new purpose in life, he meddles in police affairs, interviews locals and even receives his own menacing threats penned by someone who wants him to leave town. The case might well provide him with the solution he requires, as his publisher asks him to write The Truth about what went on between Harry Quebert and Nola Kellergan.

Joel Dicker

Joël Dicker speaking in FNAC bookstore

A Consuming Truth

Viewing the wall of bestsellers is the first thing you see when you enter major supermarkets in France like Geant Casino and Carrefour; it says a lot about local culture that people are being enticed to grab a book at the very first moment they enter a supermarket! I don’t think I have seen that in any other country, I have listened to experts talk about enticing customers with fresh healthy fruit at the entrance, but not literature.

Too Many Additives

For me, although I get the requirement of a modern social satire to exaggerate, the Harry Quebert story carried too many characters that were inflated caricatures of American stereotypes, with insufficient humour to make it work. Trying to be a satire, a pastiche and a murder mystery with its innumerable twists made it for me, like a cocktail made by an unsupervised teenager  who, rather than combining two ingredients, like a mature pre-adult can’t resist adding a little of everything on offer until ultimately it becomes unpalatable.

I viewed it as an outsiders attempt at making a comment on modern American society, media, publishing, the sensationalism and obsession with broadcasting the trials of celebrities. That a 28-year-old writer could enter into a police murder investigation and  didn’t ring true enough for me to be able to read it without the constant presence of low-level annoyance at its flaws. Perhaps if I had saved it for a summer read when my expectations are lower, I may have enjoyed it more.

I do love that a French bestseller was picked up by international publishers and translated into English, the author interviewed in The Observer and elsewhere, but sadly, this award-winning novel wasn’t my cup of tea.

Great Gatsby2And in a twist of Great Gatsbyish irony, it seems that thousands of the English translation books are languishing in storage, waiting for a boom that has yet to arrive. Will it take a generation to be revered as an apt indictment of the times or will it languish in obscurity as a publishers costly mistake?

Further Reading:

The Observer Article – Joël Dicker: ‘I lost a bit of control of my life’

Note: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher via NetGalley.