Storytelling fiction – Housekeeping, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and Lighthousekeeping

(Disclaimer : The following comments are purely my own thought. No hard feelings intended. Criticism and opinions are always welcome.)

My experience with literature texts have been mixed so far, but if you like your literature books, it’s usually a treat to re-read them and rediscover the stories and characters you used to study, especially when you don’t feel like risking dissatisfaction with a new, ‘untried’ book. Some texts, like Tenessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, or certain poems like Muliebrity, Before the Sun and Rising Five, have stuck with me over the years, while others I try to un-remember. My latest prose texts were Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Women’s literature isn’t my usual cup of tea and I approached these two books anticipating unending female rhapsodizing. On my first reading, I found Oranges a little too flighty and incongruous, but Housekeeping was surprisingly enjoyable. They both grew on me, or perhaps it is more fitting to say I grew into them, the way you grow into good books if you put in enough effort. 

HousekeepingHousekeeping is intensely beautiful, expansive and intimate at once, with layer upon layer of texture and emotion in its prose. Ruth and Sylvie, restless and attuned as they are to the overlapping experiences of desire, loneliness and death, tell their stories the way the night sky or a sunset shares itself : simple yet brilliant, moving each person on a level where language becomes … indescribable.

“…I dreamed that the bridge was a chute into the lake and that, one after another, handsome trains slid into the water without even troubling the surface…I dreamed that Sylvie was teaching me to walk underwater. To move so slowly needed patience and grace, but she pulled me after her in the slowest waltz, and our clothes flew like the robes of painted angels.”


Oranges, on the other hand, is a quirky, skilful blend of allegory and comic realism that I had trouble understanding at first. After getting the hang of the patchwork narrative and the consistently incongruent nature of the text, however, I grew to love it in equal measure. The protagonist, named Jeanette, is an outcast amongst her peers and finds her strength in the Christian church and her mother – until both church and mother condemn Jeanette for homosexuality, punish Jeanette and her lover for their ‘unnatural passions’, and banish Jeanette from their midst. Betrayed by family and lover alike, Jeanette is forced to make her own way in life, questioning the unreasonable rigidity of religious and conventional norms. 

oranges are not the only fruit

“…I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend.

“As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me…Romantic love has been diluted into paperback form and has sold thousands and millions of copies. Somewhere is is still in the original, wirtten on tablets of stone. I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have, but not for a man, because they want to be the destroyer and never be destroyed. That is  why they are unfit for romantic love. There are exceptions and I hope they are happy.”


And since I was in the mood for something humorous and thought provoking, I picked up another Jeanette Winterson novel : Lighthousekeeping. It resembles Housekeeping in more than just the title – both books are highly similar, from the themes of storytelling and the loaded literary references, to the technique of concurrent narratives, right down to the motifs of death, darkness, desire and memory. 

My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.

I have no father. There’s nothing unusual about that – even children who do have fathers are often surprised to see them. My own father came out of the sea and went back that way. He was crew on a fishing boat that harboured with us one night when the waves were crashing like dark glass.

His splintered hull shored him for long enough to drop anchor inside my mother.

Shoals of babies vied for life.

I won.”

Lighthousekeeping starts off well, promising Winterson’s usual personal and irreverant style of narration. Silver is a familiar ingenue for Winterson’s readers (with the familiar unusual mother and dog), confronted too early with the death of her mother and her ‘destiny’ as a keeper of stories. Lighthousekeeping’s unwavering emphasis on storytelling, intially refreshing, soon becomes cloying, and I felt overwhelmed by the abundance of wordplay and aphorisms that prevents Silver from reaching her point. It feels like a writer’s indulgence. For me, the only redemption is Pew, the blind and eccentric old man who “tends the light” like a mother a child, and opens Silver to the world of light, night, and storytelling. 



Metamorphosis juvenile fiction – The Animorphs

This ambling, direction-less lifestyle I currently lead is perfect in that if one plan fails, I make another, no problem : nobody to inform and nobody to decide but me. This is good because I have an endless supply of  inbred inconsiderateness that enjoys being exercised. I also have the time and the money to make my  decisions. Malaysia means being chauffered around and cooked for, and being completely guiltless about guiltlessly enjoying life with my parents’ money. But Singapore means a suddenly sky high transport fare and my own meals. Merely five days here have left me feeling vaguely penniless.

I went to sleep last early morning (2am) planning to spend a day biking by the beach, going as far and as fast as I wanted to. But it was drizzling when I woke up, and the mostly elderly population of Ang Mo Kio, usually given to sitting or walking around the blocks to while away the time, had quit the grounds for shelter. The cool wind and rain received me like the sky the lone eagle. It’s quite flattering, and rather gratifying, to be the only person being drizzled upon.

In view of saving the busfare, I walked to Bishan Public Library, which was pleasingly empty. There was something else I’d promised myself : that I’d return to these bookhavens and read to my heart’s content when my A levels were over. RI’s library won’t read my student card anymore, so I shall turn to public resources, which are reasonably decent.

What in the world, though, does any library intend to do with one Animorph book? How is anyone supposed to get a story out of one book in a series of fifty-four! The Animorph series reads a little like Francis’s Mindfuck in that the science-fiction elements are immediately follow-able and that the characters, like Val Toreth, are unforgettable. Animorphs might be abrupt and cliched at times, with the ‘deadpan one liner’ style characteristic of teenage urban fiction, but somehow, given the gritty, underground element to this story, it’s fitting and believable.  

“We can’t tell you who we are. Or where we live. It’s too risky, and we’ve got to be careful. Really careful. So we don’t trust anyone. Because if they find us … well, we just won’t let them find us. The things you should know is that everyone is in really big trouble. Yeah. Even you.”

A desperately outnumbered resistance force against the advancing Yeerk empire, five kids, Jake, Marco, Cassie, Rachel, Tobia, and one Andalite, Ax, have only two things on their side : anonymity, and the ability to morph into different animals. In spite of – or because of – the odds, they are hell bent on kicking ass, or on going down kicking ass. It is a kid’s book that’s exceptionally well crafted. Bar the appeal of morphing to any proper kid, and Animorphs is still highly enjoyable because the kids remain exactly that – kids. There is kid friendship, kid loyalty and kid bravado, and any regret, fear and anxiety is voiced but pushed aside, the way most kids do. The romances are minimal, bittersweet with the uncertainty of survival and the knowledge that their battle against the Yeerks comes first; no complicated love triangles (the Roswell series), no jarringly inappropriate ‘romantic developments’ (Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance trilogy has stellar examples of romance gone wrong) and no gratuitous declarations of love (Twilight). There is dissension, but ultimately they all remain loyal to Jake, accepting that his decisions are difficult and that he often has no choice. Very thankfully, there is no tiresome teenage squabbling (Harry Potter’s drearying malcontent), and no angst-riddled moralizing that often passes for ‘character development’.

Let kids be kids. All six Animorphs mature through the series, held together by a common understanding of the lives that they lead and the darkness they have had to face. I’d only read one book this time, but it was enough to remind me of a life that I’d forgotten how to live – one that is straighforward, focused, and above all, unrepentant.  Long live the Animorphs.

Fetching Titles – Mindfuck VS the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

 Disclaimer : The following content, and all other ‘book reviews’ that follow (although I do not claim any ability to review any book) is purely my own unenlightened opinion and may contain spoilers of mentioned books. No hard feelings. Comments are always welcome.

I suppose I’ve come to glance past, and even be prejudiced against, books with catchy titles, because of their tendency to disappoint. Off the top of my mind, I found Paulo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello, complete with beautiful coverpage art, unremarkable and rather too diffusive to sustain interest, just like I found a majority of  my action/adventure/crime thriller reads nothing more than flashy titles and gratuitous excitement. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, despite having been all over bookstore bestseller shelves, in the lists of book-club recommendations, and made into a Swedish movie, seemed to fall into the same category. Conspicuous title, fragmented blurb, and a strong suggestion, through the coverpage picture, of a badass, attractively no-holds-barred ‘anti-hero’ – all suggesting a book trying too hard.

Lisbeth Salander
Lisbeth Salander

Thus far, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has done little to impress – it is long-winded, disjointed, and unconvincing. The first problem might be my fault as an obsessively critical reader, but the latter two points uproot the appeal of Larsson’s novel almost entirely. Lisbeth Salanders’ “typically-unusual” combination of a dangerous, talented detective from unsavoury backgrounds, flawed but seemingly invulnerable, with a well honed survival instinct and don’t-fuck-with-me aura, is only superficially interesting…and unrealistically so. It seems implausible that Salanders’s employers, colleagues and friends are unquestionably devoted to her, as many readers seem to be. Plotwise, Larsson’s novel is loose and colourless, like a mismatched and unflattering outfit. There are too many things – murder, revenge, cyberhacking, complicated (and complicating) relationships – with insufficient linking and relevance. The development of setting was negligible, the description passable but repetitive. I have been told the book picks up, but having flipped to the later parts, I remain doubtful.

If there is one book that has more than lived up to its title, it has to be Mindfuck, a dystopian science fiction by Manna Francis. Incidentally, Mindfuck and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo both have intriguing but sociopathic protagonists. However, to compare Francis’s Val Toreth with Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is to liken Hellsing’s Alucard to Twilight’s Edward Cullen. It simply is not done.

There are no bad guys or good guys. There are only better guys and worse guys.
One of the worse guys is Val Toreth. In a world in which torture is a legitimate part of the investigative process, he works for the Investigation and Interrogation Division, where his colleagues can be more dangerous than the criminals he investigates.

One of the better guys is Keir Warrick. His small corporation, SimTech, is developing a “sim” system that places users in a fully immersive virtual reality.
A minnow in a murky and dangerous pond, he is only beginning to discover how many compromises may be required for success.

Their home is the dark future dystopia of New London. A totalitarian bureaucracy controls the European Administration, sharing political power with the corporations. The government uses violence and the many divisions of the feared Department of Internal Security to maintain control and crush resistance. The corporations fight among themselves, using lethal force under the euphemism of “corporate sabotage,” uniting only to resist attempts by the Administration to extend its influence over them. Toreth and Warrick are more natural enemies than allies. But mutual attraction and the fight for survival can create unlikely bonds.

What Warrick (left) and Val Toreth (right) could look like

‘Fetching’ does not do this title justice. ‘Appalling’ would suit it better, or ‘forceful’. Mindfuck, both the title and the story, is intelligently written, is perfectly paced to both engage the the reader’s attention and bring to life the detailed, textured characters. I fell, hard, for Val Toreth, who is selfish, sadistic, and ruthless, but very lovable (sometimes hilariously so. He’s obsessed with his own skincare regime). His trying relationships with the two people who matter to him – his indisposable assistant Sara and the perfectionistic Keir Warrick – are deftly and expertly fleshed out by Francis. The sex is kinky and explicit, but suitably minimal and never gratuitous. There is nothing gratuitous about Francis’s writing; neither the angst nor the sex nor the violence, which is admirable control on the writer’s part. Manna Francis mesmerizes with this short, but potent – very potent – thriller. 

For a better review of Mindfuck, read “topandbottomreviews“. And for the other stories featuring Val Toreth and Warrick, visit Manna Francis’ website. My personal hedonistic favourites are “Boys Toys“, “Mirror mirror” and “Surprises.” Although, given the consistently superb quality of Francis’s writing, the printed books are extremely worth getting.