I will tell you that I was not expecting much from the cover blurb by Publishers Weekly. For something to be touted as "one of Christian fiction's best novels of the year", often there is much beating of Bibles involved and at least one conversion.
This book has one offscreen conversion, by a minor character, and a Bible takes a wild boar's tusk.
I knew, from reading the back cover, that some kind of major Indonesian conflict was going to send Our Intrepid Heroes into the jungle. I admit to a dearth of personal knowledge regarding Indonesian politics. I suspect the characters would have as well, prior to their ill-fated trip. Cori -- properly Coralie, which is so very pretty and therefore Not Her -- sees this mission trip, to build a church and teach the locals about Christianity, as a way to escape her personal problems. Hints are dropped regarding conflict in Ambon, but it appears unlikely to reach poky little Seram until... it does reach Seram.
McKay doesn't shy away from her subject matter. We get to know characters who are subsequently killed, and Cori holds one of them as he dies. The adults aren't perfect by a long shot. All right, they're useless for most of the story. Mani (Manuel), a resident of Seram who is seventeen, ends up leading Cori and her fellow mission workers to safety, along with his baby sister Tina (Christina).
Everyone's character is well-explored during the trip. Mark, the "baby" at fifteen, is believably bratty, but he also provides a hit of humour at the direst moments. Drew, who Has Issues, also handles the trauma worst, but there's hope she'll weather it through her connection with stoic (I hate this word) hunk Brendan. Elissa, starry-eyed and romantic, uses her upcoming wedding to Colin to get herself through. Kyle is somewhat changeable, with a chip on his shoulder and a shaky grasp on faith, yet it is Kyle to whom Cori connects, Cori who has been uprooted from homes she loves twice to move continents, Cori in need of security but unsure she will find it in Maryland with boyfriend Scott (the conversion). Mani is more than a convenient native; I mean, he's useful, but he's also someone about whom the group -- and I -- come to care very much. He's just seen his parents die. He nearly lost his sister in the same killings. His village is gone. Yet he believes that God will deliver him and his funny new family.
Mani's knowledge is by turns awesome and absolutely necessary. The adults in charge of the mission group very stupidly took the antimalarial prophylaxis to Ambon when they went to get help for a potential case of appendicitis. In the chaos, nobody thinks to mention this until Mark actually gets malaria, at which point Mani whips out some papaya leaves and turns them into tea. The leaves contain quinine, which is also antimalarial. He also teaches the group how to cook rice using hollow bamboo, turns slothlike creatures into stew with a "bing!" on the head (I'll cop to giggling) and notices, before anyone else, that a log is not a log. It's a python. The group does not discard him once he has delivered them to safety; the group is aghast at the thought of leaving him and Tina, and mourns when they must leave Jakarta without either.
Along the way, more sectarian violence becomes apparent. This is handled in such a way that blames both sides for the war, though McKay appears to come down a bit more on the "Christians getting the short end of the stick" side. Well, look at the genre. At one point, in order to gain safe passage through a town, the group becomes "journalists". That's when Cori finds her purpose in this mess. She's been documenting the trip. Now she turns her camera on the atrocities committed by both Christians and Muslims, and others in the group conduct interviews. Cori comes to consider that camera her most prized possession. She'll give Mani the ring and chain Scott gave her, to sell so Mani can get himself and Tina to safety, but when the embassy asks for her camera and film, she has to work on trusting them to do what's right with it.
The group unwittingly echoes Médecins Sans Frontières' mission of témoignage, literally "testimony". Witnessing. They are witnesses and they cannot ultimately stand idly by. Yes, they have had Montezuma's Revenge. Yes, they have had malaria. Yes, Kyle was charged by a wild boar and Cori took a fall that cut her pretty badly and the lot of them nearly drowned crossing to Ambon -- and the camera, and the message, are still the most important part.
Cori as narrator takes us through PTSD, and I don't like that her psychologist admonishes her for "sliding toward depression", as there are better ways to handle that aspect of trauma, but I do like that what Cori does is continue to be a witness. I love that instead of a pat romantic ending with either Kyle or Scott, Cori chooses a future in journalism and a return to her native Australia to study it at university. I love that Mani and Tina do find their way to safety, first in a refugee camp and then in the homes of the adults who were running the mission project. I like that there was a hustle to get them out of the camp, too; Cori thinks, well, refugee camp, not as bad as what they escaped, but the adults seem to know that a camp is little better than before.
I can't give it a wholehearted five stars, because this is not joining my canon, but I think it's an important book for starry-eyed mission-tripping teens to pick up. I think they need to know that humanitarian aid is more than a summer abroad. Terrible things happen to innocent people, even people who have nothing to do with the conflict (witness the recent death of an AP photographer in Afghanistan). I think if the God Squad I knew in high school had read it, perhaps they would have come away humbled. This is impossible without a TARDIS, but McKay's novel has come in time to educate a new cohort. Let it change them for the better.
There's no "or" about this book: it's Ada and ardour, and it's genius.
All right, I'll admit that Mr Nabokov takes some getting into. Accessible he ain't. Delicious, however, delicious he is and this is like a perfect bread pudding: layers coming together to create something you don't know you'll love until you look down and there's your empty plate.
The Penguin edition I bought, with the cattleya on the cover, only enhances Ada's genius. By the time you read what will ultimately become the back cover blurb, Nabokov has already shattered the fourth wall and is proceeding to stomp on the pieces for good measure. It's a manuscript in the guise of a novel shaped like time, apropos for a novel with an entire section on the nature of time. Adolescence is long and sprawling, disillusionment shorter but sizable, the transition between one generation of Veens and the next shorter still. I admit Van's treatise on time (Part Four) feels long, but I haven't a head for hard science and you sort of should in order to properly appreciate it. Then it's Van and Ada in the twilight, implausibly long-lived given the rest of the family.
Indeed, on the back cover, there's the closing few paragraphs, the last few, I imagine, that Van and Ada were able to dictate to Violet Knox; oh, yes, this is the story of their lives as written by them, in their own hands at first and then given over to a secretary as they age into decrepitude.
I lived and loved with them. I hated anyone who tried to come between them at first, as young, hotheaded romantics will -- and I learned to appreciate various come-and-gos like Cordula, though never Andrey or Dasha. Demon certainly lives up to his name. Marina's a mother in the Eve Casson/Topaz Mortmain vein, without their redeeming qualities. Marina never feels quite there, oblivious to anything that doesn't stroke her ego.
Lucette's such a loving little creature that I couldn't help but love her, in the end. She always knows she'll come second to both Ada and Van, yet she suggests, in the face of their separation, that Ada would do best to come away from Andrey and live with herself and Van -- far preferable to seclusion in Arizona. Never mind that if Van married her, it would be a marriage of very little passion. Lucette loves Van. Lucette loves Ada. (For varying definitions of love throughout.) Therefore, if Lucette can bring them together, she will.
But if she could have, there would have been very little story.
Somehow the incest isn't squicky. They keep it in one generation (Van/Ada with incidental Lucette). Demon, if anything, is appalled to see Ada wandering out of Van's bedroom. Bastards are nothing, adultery ditto, but he does draw the line at a brother and sister together. Mind you, he'd have been easier about it if they'd been the cousins they supposedly were. Ada is meant to be the daughter of Marina by Dan, Demon's cousin, and Demon Van's son by Aqua, Marina's twin.
I cannot mention this novel without heaping praise on the wordplay. I appreciated Ada all the more for its hodgepodge of languages. What's more, it's understood that the reader will be fine with all the French; only the Russian is interpreted for our benefit. I squealed when I saw "fûmes" in Cordula's letter. Dizzying, heady, like caffeinated champagne! Even within what we consider "our" languages, we're never far from the reality of this anti-reality. Is that really what the Russian means, or is Nabokov playing tricks? After all, he's managed to construct "muirninochka", Irish Gaelic with a Russian diminutive tacked to the end. It's an exclamation mark of a reminder that yes, we are Elsewhere, in a fantastic example of fantastic fiction.
You will pry my pretty Penguin edition out of my cold, dead hands.
Nana. Oh, Nana.
Nana, for all her beauty and all the adoration lavished upon her, never meets anyone willing to teach her what to do with the money she earns, aside from spending it. As large as she lives, she never shakes the belief that money can buy happiness, and that's the real tragedy of the novel. She doesn't achieve true fulfillment of any kind, but she's got the grandest digs in town. Nana's uncertain childhood and unstable family life have taught her an easy-come-easy-go mentality. The trappings of wealth represent a more respectable life, but they cannot actually give her what she lacks.
A modern version of Zola's classic would likely remind us of ill-fated lottery winners, and I imagine they are similarly overwhelmed by their newfound wealth. (I don't have to imagine, actually; I had to learn how to manage my own money once I had enough to blow in stupid ways.) I can't read Nana as merely greedy and callous. She is how she was made to be. Her mothering is that of a girl who never know any of her own. Her concept of money as love stems from a fundamental insecurity about both. Who has ever actually loved her without exploiting her? Who has she ever been able to trust? Nana the beautiful, Nana on a pedestal -- I had this experience, too, except that I never had the brains to charge for my company. I can respect Nana for trying to scratch out a living, and feel deeply for her when she gets in over her head.
I did mourn her when Zola killed her off. I recognise that he and his contemporaries had Views About Heredity, and that Nana was meant to be the scion of a whole line of bad seeds -- and I don't care, because no woman deserves to lose her child and then suffer an agonizing death from smallpox. The fallen woman getting her just desserts was a tired trope even then. Why not redemption? Why not at least a chance for little Louiset? I suppose the question has been examined in greater depth by academics, but I put it to you, my fellow amateurs. Ask yourselves, after you've swallowed this narrative whole --
A formative read, but not, in hindsight, a brilliant idea on my part. Perhaps it should have waited ten years (and all the VC Andrews with it, and The Thorn-Birds...)
I like Eve.
♥ I like her because even though she's scatterbrained, she's true to herself and loves everyone. I'm a lot like that.
♥ I like that she and her sister have always shared everything, including her husband, and now the children are all one big family.
♥ Maybe I don't like the idea of having children, but if I did have them, I expect I would be that sort of mother. Oh, but someone else would have to do the diapers. And the vomit. But I'd happily stick them in scented baths and teach them how to be decadent little darlings.
♥ Maybe I'm best suited to being an auntie, only I won't die like Linda did in the books.
♥ I have no idea what was supposed to come next. See first heart.