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The English Section: Alentejo Blue – Monica Ali

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PRETTY COLOURS

The first thing I noticed about this book is that the cover looks a lot like the cover of On Beauty by Zadie Smith, which I tried to read once and couldn’t get into.

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I judged the book by its cover and was disappointed

I’d like to point out here that I have a long history of attention problems which have only gotten worse with age / struggles with mental illness. At the time I tried to read On Beauty, I was in the middle of a phase where I had particular trouble with this, so don’t take my word on what that book is like, because we’re not here to talk about it anyway. I only mention it because the similarity in book covers made me think they might be from the same author (I didn’t remember who it was) and I think that prejudiced me slightly against it.

So maybe my impression of the first chapter and a half was influenced by that. It was also influenced by the fact that since this project demands that I read ALL the books in the English section of the library, I just picked it up without reading the blurb on the back cover. Turns out, the blurb isn’t just there to help you pick which book you want to buy or borrow; it also provides key information about the nature of the book, such as the fact that this is one of those books where each chapter follows a different character, making it a bit like a collection of short stories all set in the same place and time. Instead, I dived straight in thinking all the chapters were going to be like the first one, which spoiled it for me a bit. Maybe I should re-read chapter 1, because Joao is an interesting character, if only because none of the other characters think much of him. To them, he’s just one of the local elders, a poor old man who lives on his own and keeps a pig.

You know that game people play where they pick out a stranger in the street and imagine a whole life for them? I’m guessing Monica Ali knows that game well, and that’s what’s so fun about this book: you get to know each character from the inside, but then you also see them from the outside, through the eyes of the others. It show how deep and complex each of them is, from the obese and bitter bartender to the ex-druggie living in her trailer with her deadbeat husband and hopeless, snotty kids to the young girl who thinks her capacity for observation ought to make her stand out more, unaware of her own self-centeredness and naïvete. In each of these people there’s something to like and something to hate, and a ton of matter in between, but you only know that for the length of their chapter. Outside of that, you see them through the eyes of the other characters, for whom they are two-dimensional extras in film of which they are the protagonist.

This game of changing viewpoints comes to a head at the end of the book, where the point of view keeps changing, contrary to the rest, and centers around the arrival of this one mysterious character who everyone’s been waiting for, and who, when he arrives, refuses to reveal anything about his own inner world and motives, even when confronted directly. The characters’ speculation, their vain attempts to put him in a box the way they so easily do with everyone else, reflects our own tendency to categorise everyone we see based on prejudice, and the unease we feel when we find someone we can’t classify.

There are some characters who you only get to know through the point of view of someone close to them; which makes their reactions in certain circumstances surprising: I’m thinking of Eileen’s portrait of her husband, which makes us think their marriage is doomed to failure, but at the end of the chapter he shows that he is capable of trying to understand her, if she just communicates frankly.

At times, I felt frustrated not knowing how some of the stories ended. How does Teresa manage in London? What happens to Ruby? How did the Pottses manage in the end? But that’s also the beauty of the book: it’s about people. Peoples’ stories don’t end, they succeed one another, one story leading onto the next. The book gives an inside into the inner lives of several different people, leaving us guessing the end of their stories, but we know that the characters are each so absorbed in their own story that they’re not wondering about the others, like we are. The message I take away from it is that we should wonder, even in real life, even without that insight, about what happened to that friend we had in primary school, that teacher, that neighbour of your dad’s. Just wondering what their inner lives were like allows us to imagine them complexely, and that, dear reader, is how books make us better people.

The English Section: The Killing Of The Saints – Alex Abella

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I’ve recently discovered our local library, which has a large selection of English books, most of which are not the sort I’d usually read (fantasy, comedy or both). In the aim of opening my mind (and to avoid dithering in front of said bookshelves for ages while my partner and child wait impatiently to leave), I’ve decided to read all of them, one by one, in the order I find them, that is according to the Dewey decimal system, and to do a book review of each one. Of course, I’ll miss some because they’ll be taken out, but I’ll just pick those up later as I go along.

The first book is called The Killing Of The Saints by Alex Abella.

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Not sure I want to know what the image is supposed to be.

It’s about a lawyer who, seemingly in spite of himself, ends up having to defend a mass murderer who claims he was possessed by a god – that’s what the blurb says. It’s also about racism and corruption and politics. It’s about a guy who goes above and beyond the call of duty to defend a mass murderer who he secretly hopes will end up with a death sentence, because even he has a right to a proper defence. It’s about a man who seems bent on destroying his own life, who subconsciously sentences himself to misery for crimes you can’t entirely blame him for, but you can’t say he’s entirely innocent, either. It’s about dealing with huge moral grey areas with a justice system that sees only in black and white.

And it’s about gods and ghosts and religious fanatics, and you could probably explain away most of the scenes through mass hysteria etc., but then you could also not, and choose to believe, because it’s a story, and it gives you that choice.

Unfortunately, what with my new motherly duties, I didn’t actually manage to finish this book before I had to return it, which is not an excellent start to a project which entails doing book reviews, but never mind. I got to the very last chapter, which I think was something of an epilogue – in other words, I know how the trial turned out. I don’t know what the deal with the ghost was (you’ll see what I mean if you read the book, I’m not saying more because no spoilers), but I can tell the last chapter attempts to explain it. I want to finish the book, and maybe I’ll speed-read the ending next time I’m in the library, but that would be a pity, because speed-reading means skipping all the colourful descriptions that drew me in in the first place.

I give it four stars on Goodreads, because it wasn’t at all what I expected, and I had no idea how it would end until I read it (and I still want to read the bit I didn’t finish). It introduced me to a culture (Cuban latino) and a religion (Santeria) that I knew little to nothing about, which was fun, I mentally read almost all the dialogues in a Brooklyn accent (despite it being set in L.A.) which was also fun, and I didn’t expect the paranormal aspect to be such a big part of the story, which was interesting in a crime novel. I liked how there were odd bits of Spanish – artfully translated by the narrator where needed – that immersed me in a whole different culture to the ones I know. The legal stuff goes right over my head, but that’s ok – the author tells it in such a way as not to make it boring.

The main character is deeply flawed, sometimes downright stupid in his life decisions, and often a bit of a twat. The moral principles he lives by make him hate the environment and the people he lives with, who seem to have none for the most part, and he also hates himself for past transgressions that, while they’re undeniably serious, are also somewhat understandable given the circumstances, and god this is hard to talk about without spoiling anything, so I’ll just say this: it’s a good book. If you see in your local library, take it out and read it.

Wow, I am shite at book reviews. Join me in three weeks (or less, if we’re lucky) for my opinion on whatever I’ve managed to read of Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali.