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From last year...

The Manzoni Family - Natalia Ginzburg

I was recommended Ginzburg as a good writer a while ago, and picked this up without realising it is in some ways quite a strange book. It's a biography-of-sorts of the family of Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873), the author of I Promessi Sposi, a novel which appears to have a bit of cult status. Manzoni himself is the keystone, but the book explores the lives of his parents, his children and their various off-shoots through a combination of what I assume is authentic archival material and imaginative narrative reconstruction. It's an odd mix between a novel and a more traditional biography, but Ginzburg's writing (as far as I can tell from the translation) is elegant and compelling, able to conjure these people out of nowhere, and bring to life their internal conflicts and battles. I've now got one of Ginzburg's novels out to read her more straightforward fiction writing; while this wasn't what I expected, it was fascinating to read the story of a family, and only see the wider movements of history around the edges where they touched on this particular family's fortunes.

Villette - Charlotte Brontë

I can't remember who recommended this, but man, it is a WEIRD book. Mainly because the protagonist and narrator, Lucy Snowe, has an extremely peculiar inner life. It is, I hasten to add, a perfectly consistent inner life, but one that appears completely emotionally stunted and incapable of engaging with humanity in any way, shape or form. This is not to say that she's not relatable - some of her internal monologues about how she is one of those people who is never allowed to have any joy, and how duty will always crush any small sparks of happiness she might reach for, or the tussle between hope and reality, feel uncomfortably familiar - but the problem with Lucy is that she has internalised these dialogues and shows no inclination to challenge them or consider whether these headspiders might be worth expunging. The only occasion where she does begin to think she might gain some happiness is through romantic involvement with a man who I can only describe as incredibly emotionally abusive. I don't know whether Brontë would have thought so, or would have identified the behaviours this man displays as problematic, but ARGH. I was reading passages and all the alarm bells were going. It's a portrait of an abusive relationship before society really had a name for them, frankly. For heaven's sake, in their first significant formal encounter he locks her in an attic for a day to learn her lines for a school play, meaning she misses the food that the rest of the school is enjoying. It is not a great start, is it?

It is a very interesting book, not least because of the extent to which we are supposed to believe Lucy's narrative (which, I think, becomes less and less trustworthy as the novel progresses, certainly in terms of her interpretation of events), and how much that narrative wobbliness is supplemented by (perhaps) a lack of awareness on Brontë's part about what sort of thing she is writing about. I don't like Lucy Snowe, and I find some of her choices frustrating and bewildering, as I also find her resignation to being life's doormat - while I think some of that's my very different cultural conditioning, I also think her character is genuinely perplexing, in that it possesses a great deal of strength but also a very strong streak of martyrdom excessive even for the period. Anyway. It's a book that's made me think and reflect, and as such definitely worth engaging with.

New year, new numbers!

Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins

Obtained after a fight with the library system... mainly because people talk about the Hunger Games trilogy and classical reception, and given I appear to be thinking more about children's and YA literature in combination with said classical reception hat on, I figured I should probably read the trilogy and see what I make of it. On the classical reception side, there's not a lot here apart from quite an interesting Poseidon riff. However, on the reading front, it's good old-fashioned book-crack and I cheerfully devoured it, including sitting up until Far Too Late on an evening when I really shouldn't have done. The 'two men who love me and who I also love' is classic chick lit stuff, although it's all being framed in terms of 'and how is this all going to work out in a way that doesn't get my family killed', and also with the whole state rebellion issue, so it doesn't become all about the romantic element - it's just wound up into the general picture of challenge and problems and no good solutions, which I think results in quite a powerful and compelling overall texture. I'm keen to see what happens in the next book now.
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