My Contemporary Fiction Challenge #3: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs

Claire Messud’s latest novel is female, angry and disturbing.

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The narrator Nora is an American forty-something elementary school teacher with withered dreams of becoming an acclaimed artist. She is also a seriously angry woman embittered with the world for forcing her to give up her artistic aspirations; angry with her parents for needing her in their old age; and most of all angry with herself for desperately needing approval from everyone. She describes herself as the woman upstairs: ‘we’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting…’ (6).

       The Woman Upstairs is a powerful example of a text dealing with the subject of female anger. Perhaps the first novel I have read that has dealt with the issue so openly. It’s something within the spheres of both literature and society we are uncomfortable with. Women are meant to be likeable characters, doting mothers and daughters, without a sense of irritation or loss at how their life could/might have turned out if things were different…and this novel shows the anger hidden behind a ‘good’ woman. Female anger is often seen as hysterical, a sign of madness or PMS. The novel’s title and recurrent theme of the ‘woman upstairs’ echoes the discussions of female experience in Gilbert’s and Gubar’s ‘The Mad Woman in the Attic’ which is a text most English literature students will have studied time and time again and Messud definitely draws from this. Messud’s writing definitely draws from feminist discussions of women’s experience under patriarchy, but is does not aim to provide answers. It never pins female experience to anything particular, rather emphasising its fluidity which is simultaneously liberating and terrifying.

Her feelings of anger at life are exacerbated by the Shahids. Reza Shahid, a new boy from Paris, moves into her elementary school class and thus starts a friendship between her, Reza and his parents that changes her perspective on life- making her feel that the life she wants is in reach- however ultimately the family/her imagination disappoint her wishes. The novel is cyclical starting with Nora after the betrayal of the Shahids (don’t worry I won’t give any spoilers); a harsh awakening to reality and her own mediocrity that leads to her uncontrollable rage and then a recap of her life before and during the betrayal.

Messud’s writing is unrestrained and raw. Dappled with moments of lucid awareness and self-criticism portraying gaps in Nora’s reality and fiction. Is she as ordinary as she imagines or does she just ignore her own virtues? You could argue the power of the Shahids over Nora is their ability to represent her ideal -exotic, wealthy and deeply comfortable with their identities. Neither Nora nor Messud ever make it clear whether the Shahids are really as fantastic as they appear, or simply an illusion fabricated by Nora’s suppressed self.  I love that these questions are raised and never answered. There is an active engagement between the reader, Nora and the author. Something that most writers cannot achieve.

This novel definitely fits my vague impression of contemporary literature. It really shows the complexities of female experience and the uncertainty of contemporary society that both puzzles and entices the reader to think. 

My Contemporary Fiction Challenge #2: Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared

Apologies for the late review, I have been interning in London for the past month so haven’t had much time to write! But have read quite a few novels so hopefully more will follow soon.

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This is the second novel I am reviewing for my contemporary fiction challenge. I picked this novel partly due to its endearing title and partly due to friendly recommendations. Also, I must admit I was kind of curious to read something distinctly Scandinavian but without the Scandinavian doom and gloom of The Killing.  It is light-hearted and silly: the kind of book to read on a rainy day with a mug of hot chocolate.

      The Hundred-year-old Man who climbed out of the Window and Disappeared is a whimsical biography of Allan Karlsson; a fictitious explosives expert and reluctant centurion. On his hundredth birthday Allan decides to escape his Malmköping care home (and the bossy Director Alice that runs it) in exchange for adventure. Thus starts a novel that intertwines Allan’s present day road trip around Sweden with his past impact on the biggest events in modern history. From a Siberian concentration camp to the top of the Himalayas; from socialising with President Truman to saving General Franco’s life Allan has done everything and been everywhere. His modern-day adventures are no different to his younger years. He impulsively steals a suitcase stuffed with cash from a gangster, meets some comical criminals (anyone reminded of that scene in Tangled? Cue ‘I have a dream’ scene) and goes on the run from the police in an old school bus with an elephant named Sonya.

I struggled to accept Jonasson’s absurd representation of modern history, Allan’s extreme influence over pretty much everything related to explosive warfare, and his ability to foil the police at every turn.  However the novel never pretends to be a serious commentary on modern history, old age or ignorance, it simply portrays the life of a funny old man who longs for adventure. Anyone wishing to read something light and fun will have their wish granted, and those hoping to see a Swedish interpretation of modern history, or a novel dealing with the psychological effects of age will have to look somewhere else…

My only particular qualm with the novel is the lack of empathy developed for the character Allan himself. I can see past the two-dimensional and clichéd whirlwind of characters Allan meets during his life, but Allan himself? The novel is like a Swedish reinvention of Forrest Gump without the moments of tenderness. The plot is absurd, and all realism and belief escapes the window with Allan and his pee-stained slippers…  Whilst working as a waiter in the Los Alamos laboratory he listens to scientists working on nuclear reactions, and happens to figure out from their discussions and from his own self-taught knowledge of explosives how to make an atom bomb! He is also sent to a concentration camp for annoying Stalin at a dinner party along with Albert Einstein’s idiotic half-brother Herbert… Unfortunately, the novel’s farcical nature leaves Allan as little more than a tool for amusement. There is no sense of his personal views or feelings and frequently his lack of interest appears disturbingly amoral and apathetic.

But maybe I am being too pessimistic here. After all the story is clearly meant to be ridiculous and unbelievable so why expect anything less from the characters within the story? One important thing to take from this book is the almost magical and mysterious way Jonasson shows old age.  Allan may be old but in spirit he is as cheeky and optimistic as he was in his youth. This novel reminds me how little I think of the lives of my elderly neighbours and the grey-haired, wrinkled strangers I meet at the bus stop. They have stories to tell, perhaps not as wild as Allan’s, but who asks? Old age is inevitable but growing up is not: just because our bones get old it does not mean our hearts and souls do too.

This novel was really fun to read but personally just not complex or vivid enough for me. Some stories stay with you long after you read them and this one unfortunately is not one of them.