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Old 25th Jan 2007, 23:11   #1
John Self
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Default A.M. Homes: This Book Will Save Your Life

On the penultimate page of A.M. Homes's novel This Book Will Save Your Life, the protagonist Richard Novak thinks about a story he has been told and wonders:

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Was there some larger meaning - was it a parable, an allegory, or just a story?
It's clearly intended to apply to the novel itself, which is quite one of the strangest things I've read in some time. On the one hand, all the events are dealt in a deadpan, somewhat blank prose, so there's a benevolent straightforwardness to it all. On the other hand, many of the events are highly implausible, and it is only the style which keeps it from seeming either forced or - the dreaded - 'quirky.' For example at one point Novak finds himself on the television news helping a movie star to rescue a horse from a subsiding hole in the ground outside his Los Angeles home. Ah, his home:

Quote:
Above and below, a chain of houses climbs the canyon wall: a social chain, an economic chain, a food chain. The goal is to be on top, king of the hill - to win. Each person looks down on the next, thinking they somehow have it better, but there is always someone else either pressing up from below or looking down from above. There is no way to win.
And it must be this realisation which has jolted Novak's body out of its routine, and broken him away from his controlled, orderly and efficient life as a market trader ("placing his bets, going long and short, seeing how far up or down he can go, riding an invisible electronic wave") to fill him with an excruciating physical pain. This is how the novel begins: with the sudden crushing pain - never diagnosed - which sends Novak to the emergency room and out into the world, into the mess and fuss of humanity, for the first time in years.

On the way home he breaks his strictly balanced diet to buy donuts, and befriends the shop owner. He talks to a crying woman in the supermarket. He reignites an uneasy relationship with his son. In short, he re-enters the human race.

And this, really, is all that happens. There is a tremendous amount of detail, for the best part of 400 pages, and an awful lot goes on. But it would be perfectly possible to read the book as fundamentally whimsical and inconsequential. Or to view its story of one man's "dramatic emotional thaw" as superficial and sentimental. And this is how I began thinking of it: me, with my innate tendency to view pretty much anything featuring simple happiness as somehow sentimental. However Homes cleverly avoids these accusations, by the uninflected blankness of the prose and what seems an almost bold and perverse determination to tell a straight story, and so I was forced to look beyond my handy (lazy) dismissal and find a surprisingly moving, heartfelt tale, which is simple without being simplistic.

Its curious mix of the banal and the bizarre reminded me somewhat of last year's great Palimpdivider, Tom McCarthy's Remainder (wildsheep gave it five, Jim gave it one, and I gave it three), and even of Haruki Murakami. It's a bold choice for the Richard & Judy list this year because it will divide opinion, and a wise choice too for that very reason - everyone who reads it, I imagine, will get something different from it; and for that reason alone, I'd love to see what others think.

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Old 26th Jan 2007, 0:01   #2
wshaw
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Default Re: A.M. Homes: This Book Will Save Your Life

I thought it was a brilliant book; I haven't felt my own emotions manipulated so successfully by an author in a long time.

I read it as an extraordinary creative high-wire act; reading it is like watching an incredibly atheletic circus performer, wondering, how did she do that?

As JS says, so much of the book is fantastical - like the incident in which the seemingly ineffectual Novak suddenly becomes a hero rescuing a kidnapped woman from the trunk of a car. I kept wondering, how did she get me here, often within just a few pages, and still have me believing in Novak? For me that's the joy of this book - just that she can do that so astonishingly well. And JS puts his finger squarely on part of it when he writes about the sort of unsentimentally redemptive theme of the book:

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However Homes cleverly avoids these accusations [of sentimentality], by the uninflected blankness of the prose and what seems an almost bold and perverse determination to tell a straight story, and so I was forced to look beyond my handy (lazy) dismissal and find a surprisingly moving, heartfelt tale, which is simple without being simplistic.
She nudges you to feel unlikely emotions without making you feel she's led you there unfairly. Like Murakami she has such great control over the reader. Within an apparently flat, realist style she really manages to pull the reader into increasingly extraordinary and unexpected places. I'd give it a myself.
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Old 26th Jan 2007, 10:25   #3
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Default Re: A.M. Homes: This Book Will Save Your Life

I've changed my rating from to because the former doesn't really reflect the enthusiasm I hope my review conveys. It's not going to go down as one of my favourite books but I did enjoy it more and more as it went on - it took about 200 pages for me to start feeling transported - and I've been thinking about it a lot since I finished it earlier this week. Which is more than I can say for a lot of books.
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Old 26th Jan 2007, 10:30   #4
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Default Re: A.M. Homes: This Book Will Save Your Life

That's interesting. I read it some while back, and yet unlike the mush that's left in my brain about a day after finishing most books, I remember a lot of it very clearly.

Although it may be that it was the first book I'd read after a couple of months when I went off fiction... so that helps too.
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Old 26th Jan 2007, 13:03   #5
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Default Re: A.M. Homes: This Book Will Save Your Life

Great review, John. As mentioned in another thread it was a read for me last year. The only other Homes book I have read is Music For Torching, which I really enjoyed too. Same themes: suburban angst, unhappy families etc although I can't rememebr much more than that as it was 8 or 9 years ago when I read it.
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Old 6th Jun 2007, 10:05   #6
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Default Re: A.M. Homes: This Book Will Save Your Life

Has anybody read The End of Alice? I read it last week and it is one of the most head-mangling books I've ever reached the end of.

I started by thinking it was good-disturbing. Her facility with a story still marks her out as one of the most remarkable writers working. Unbelievably clever. Her narrator is an unctuous, affected paedophile, and she forces you to view the world from his point of view. She has a phenomenal ability to make the incredible and repulsive credible, which in this case is horribly unsettling.

But the last third of the book has nowhere to go, partly because the horror of her theme has already been largely played out; the fact that the narrator is guilty of a heinous murder is hardly a big surprise. Beyond the notion that paedophiles are self-deluding and can convince themselves they are conducting a personal campaign against the petty repressons of this world, she doesn't add anything to the subject...

This is AM Homes willy-waving - (which is almost certainly the wrong way of putting that thought). She's proving how bloody good her technique is by making modern society's greatest bogeyman the narrrator of a novel.
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Old 6th Jun 2007, 10:23   #7
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Default Re: A.M. Homes: This Book Will Save Your Life

I started reading it many years ago (ten maybe?) when it first came out in the UK. I gave up pretty quickly though, on the perhaps unreasonable grounds that it wasn't Lolita.
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Old 13th Jun 2011, 8:40   #8
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Default Re: A.M. Homes: This Book Will Save Your Life

I've given up on This Book Will Save Your Life. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for surreal. The horse stuck in the ever-growing hole had the feel of Douglas Adams but none of the humour. I envisage more of that, so no more for me.
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Old 21st Mar 2012, 21:24   #9
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Default Re: A.M. Homes: This Book Will Save Your Life

This is a such a strange story I've no idea how to marshal my thoughts on it. They're all over the place, just like the narrative with its bizarre series of events no doubt intended to represent the strangeness of the things that can happen every day. Only, seriously, this many mad things happening to one person?

Though I didn't feel properly involved, something about it kept me reading and I did enjoy it. It was entertaining and diverting enough but something about it felt wrong - I just can't quite put my finger on what it was that made me uncomfortable.

Don't get me wrong, it scrapes for me, but it's not exactly in my Top Reads list.
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