My friends gave me lots of books on the recent occasion of my fortieth birthday. Cheers, guys (in its non-gender-specific meaning). There was polemic, poetry and non-fiction a-plenty. But I kicked off with three works of fiction.
The notable thing was that all three of them are novels/memoirs told by adults about their relationship with their parents. You know, kind of critical but also reconciliatory. Are my friends trying to tell me something? And if so, about me, about them, or about middle age generally? Anyway, here goes ...
- 'The Kite Runner' by Khaled Hosseini is an excellent novel, told by an adult Afghan American about his childhood in Afghanistan, and in particular about his tragic and painful alienation from his best friend, the best 'kite-runner' in Kabul. Neither has a mother, so the father-son relationship takes centre stage.
From kids in the 70s to adulthood in the present, the story is hostile to both the Soviet invasion and occupation, and to the Taliban regime. Being a novel, this is on the basis not of any deep political analysis but of the horrible violence and repression suffered by the Afghan people - but actually, that's good enough.
The lead character is upper-class, but there's about enough recognition of that fact to mean that it is not an upper-class novel. Brideshead Revisited it ain't.
It's an engaging story, carrying you through its decades always keen to carry on reading to find out what happens next, even when you are pretty sure you have guessed. A good read.
- Fun Home is 'a family tragicomic' by Alison Bechdel, famed for the 'Dykes To Watch Out For' comic strip she has been producing since 1983. This book is her memoir of childhood with a DIY-obsessive closet-homosexual father and less-featured-and-unhelpful mother.
This was my first reading of a book in comic-strip format, and at times I wasn't sure whether I was loving the format itself or this particular book. The point was that I greatly enjoyed it, so not so bothered why.
The story itself is painful and funny, and painfully funny. It also manages to be totally unique - I can't imagine anyone else having a childhood exactly like this - while also containing elements that a whole load of people will recognise and relate to. Alison's joyous discovery of her sexuality, her first passionate affair, and her nervous tiptoe into the 'Gay Union' meeting all certainly touched my memories.
- A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka is, I think, somewhere near the top of the best-sellers list a present. It is neither short nor a history of tractors - nor in Ukrainian, but a story of Ukrainian family in Britain. Two adult sisters put their feud to one side to unite to protect their aged, widowed father from embarrassing and impoverishing himself with a buxom new wife.
It's funny. Very funny in parts, but possibly not as funny as it thinks it is. And I sometimes wondered whether I ought to be laughing, especially when it tips over into stereotypes about immigrants and gold-digging younger wives. But it usually rescues itself, mocking the narrow-mindedness of the sisters' crusade as well as the wife and her sometimes-comical-but-sometimes-cruel exploits.
Lewycka manages to weave through the present-day comedy a resume of the tragedy of twentieth-century Ukraine and its people, a story of persecution that explains why this family wound up in Britain. And it's partially set in Peterborough, the city where I spent my formative years. So it's got that to recommend it.