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March 8, 2004 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

A Bunch of Books

The Amateur Marriage
Anne Tyler
Chatto & Windus, $34.95

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination
Helen Feilding
Picador, $27.95

Step Across this Line: Collected Non-Fiction 1992-2002
Salman Rushdie
Vintage, $27.95

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Tears of the Giraffe
Alexander McCall Smith
Abacus, both $26.99

Reminiscent of The Corrections, but without the drugs, Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage is an intimate portrait of a gently dysfunctional marriage. Pauline and Michael met and married during America’s involvement in WWII. He’s a cautious plodder. She’s an impetuous flirt. A war bride? Opposites attracting? So far, so stock standard. However, Tyler is a realist (cynic would be too harsh a word) and realises that the very best of drama can come from neither lasting love against adversity nor spectacular dissolution of said love, but instead from the ordinariness of a not-entirely-happy marriage. She reveals the family’s growth growth through three generations in cross-section – a series of flashpoints over the years, often revealing momentous events via conversation after the fact. This has a nice feel: like friends one catches up with every few years, and can pick up from wherever one left off. A nice read.

Helen Fielding and her Overindulgent Publishing House, meanwhile, have hit pay dirt with the Bridget Jones franchise, so Fielding appears to have been given free rein to explore the lighter side of the War on Terror in her third novel. Olivia Joules is a fashion reporter in search of a big scoop so she can break into serious journalism. Her titular affliction plagues her both personally and via her professional reputation, however meeting a mysterious, foreign, stranger at a cosmetic launch in LA may be just the opening she needs. Two possible cringe-factors here: fiction colliding with current events, and Brits in LA, however Fielding manages to avoid anything squirm-inducing by just having good, mad, fun. A hard book to get into, but you have to love a heroine who, on a stealth boat at night, “…formed her fingers into a gun shape and whispered, ‘Kpow! Kpow!’”

The cover image of Rushdie’s Step Across this Line is that most romantic of writer’s symbols: a sharpened pencil, potentiated, as they say in the bee-pollen commercials, with a match-head in place of its lead. The title throws down the gauntlet. And Rushdie, for the first time, writes publicly about life under the Fatwa. This is powerful stuff: at times intensely political, at others uncomfortably personal, Rushdie lays himself bare. Having only read his fiction previously, I was (unjustifiably) surprised by just how modern he is. His material doesn’t just cover the Fatwa, but seminal moments in his life – returning to India for the first time in his adult life, taking his eldest son to the same – appearing onstage with U2. One thing I’ll say for him, Salman is cool.

I really want to use enormous wanky words to discuss Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but that would be a huge disservice to the most unpretentious, understated author writing today. His text is so finely calibrated, one gets the feeling that each sentence is weighted in the balance to find absolute grace in simplicity. One also gets the feeling that this is something McCall Smith does in his sleep. I hate him. But his books are an absolute revelation: Set in Botswana, the series follows the cases brought to the agency and its founder, Mma Precious Ramotswe, a woman of “traditional figure” and her suitor, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, a mechanic of traditional taste. Don’t expect any whodunit, however – Mma Ramotswe is a woman of good taste, morals and sense and her cases are solved with feeling and a minimum of fuss. McCall Smith is a Scot born in Zimbabwe, and has lectured at Universities throughout Africa, including Botswana. His respect for the land and its inhabitants is tangible throughout his writing, and his books are borne of a true affinity with humanity. It doesn’t get much better than this:
She turned to the van and signalled to the child within. The door opened and his son came out. And the teacher cried out, and ran forward, and stopped and looked at Mma Ramotswe as if for confirmation. She nodded, and he ran forward again, almost stumbling, an unlaced shoe coming off, to seize his son, and hold him, while he shouted wildly, incoherently, for the village and the world to hear his joy.


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