THE MAGICIAN by Colm Toibin
by Colm Toibin
(Viking £18.99, 448 pp)
The novels of the great Irish writer Colm Toibin can roughly be split into two sorts — intimate portraits of small-town Irish life and fictional biographies of towering literary figures.
This belongs to the latter, a study of the modernist German novelist Thomas Mann who, in this country, is the sort of literary giant of whom many people are aware but whose books — Death In Venice; The Magic Mountain — they have rarely read.
I’m not sure The Magician will change that: it’s a fairly heavy-going trudge through the life of a married father of six whose soul was tormented as much by the political convulsions of his native Germany in the first half of the 20th century as by his furtive homosexual desires, quietly tolerated by his sparkling wife, Katia.
You can’t fault Toibin’s research, but you do wonder if the torrent of facts rather gets in the way. Mann comes across as a bit of a cold fish, emotionally distanced from his six children whose soap opera antics are what, in the end, provide much of the novel’s colour.
THE BOOK OF FORM AND EMPTINESS by Ruth Ozeki
THE BOOK OF FORM AND EMPTINESS
by Ruth Ozeki
(Canongate £18.99, 560 pp)
Storytelling rarely comes more capacious than Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel which, in its most simplest terms, is the story of a 13‑year-old boy, Benny, grieving after the death of his jazz musician father.
Increasingly withdrawn, Benny has become convinced objects in the house — many hoarded by his equally grief-stricken mother — are talking to him. Following a spell in a children’s psychiatric unit, he seeks solace in the silence of the library.
Here, he strikes up a friendship with the beautiful, enigmatic Aleph and a curious homeless philosopher poet called the Bottleman, who together slowly help him on a voyage of self-discovery.
Ozeki interconnects zen philosophy, the environmental crisis, a critique of our mass consumer lifestyle and a playful post-modern sensibility — one of the characters is a talking book — within a novel that, for all its wide-ranging intellectual restlessness, remains grounded in its characters’ emotional reality.
Plus it’s hard to not admire a novel that uses a maximalist approach to narrative to argue for a more minimalist approach to life.
BEWILDERMENT by Richard Powers
by Richard Powers
(Hutchinson-Heinemann £18.99, 288pp)
Theo’s day job as an astrobiologist involves searching for other planets, but his young son, Robin, is preoccupied with the threat to our own. However, since the death of Theo’s wife, Robin has been struggling. Desperate to spare his son medication, Theo agrees to a pioneering new treatment. But when Robin’s personality changes completely, Theo begins to wonder where it will lead.
The Overstory, Powers’s monumental 2018 eco-fable, was beloved of readers and celebrity fans from Emma Thompson to Barack Obama.
While thoroughly immersive, this Booker shortlisted tale isn’t (quite) in the same orbit: intriguing, hinted-at backstory goes undeveloped; the contrivances are rather obvious; and the writing sometimes teeters on the sappy. But it’s deftly crafted, packs an emotional punch, and Powers’s urgent environmental message, delivered by the Greta Thunberg-like Robin, comes through loud and clear.
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