Collected Works: Literature

2017 Roundup


The Collected Works: Literature column comprises short introductions to films created between 1965 and 2016. This roundup is a summary of all the Collected Works: Literature articles published in 2017.

Playing with language

In Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News, sparse sentences mirror the bleak, craggy expanse of Newfoundland. Against this chilly backdrop, a journalist and his family seek a fresh start. Meanwhile, in John Banville’s The Sea, the author’s extensive vocabulary and rolling clauses expertly describe the narrator’s nostalgic return to a coastal village where he holidayed in his youth.

Daljit Nagra’s Ramayana: A Retelling, a reimagining of one of the great epics of Hindu literature, approaches its source material with reverence and a fresh perspective. The tale of Rama’s exile and journey to free his wife, Sita, from the clutches of a demon king, is told with infectious energy. The book’s colloquial language and unconstrained presentation of words on the page give the impression of a storyteller ‘enthusing before an attentive crowd’.

A tale of many cities

Nagra’s Ramayana, which borrows from several interpretations of the text, is defiantly multicultural. The same is true of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Leila Aboulela’s The Translator, both of which explore the impacts of immigrating. White Teeth is a sprawling saga that, while centring on London, crosses continents and generations. In The Translator, meanwhile, follows Sammar, a woman who emigrates from Khartoum to Aberdeen.

With his non-fiction travel book The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit, Elias Canetti describes his experiences of the Moroccan city: ‘the smell of the spices, the sight of the scribes, the sound of the souks’. Maureen Duffy’s view of London in Wounds is rather less wide-eyed. For her characters, the Old Smoke is a place of isolation, frustration, and bigotry, its inhabitants still scarred by painful memories of World War II.

In the frame

The more downhearted episodes of Wounds are juxtaposed with the bedside whisperings of an enamoured couple, a framing device emphasising the novel’s inequalities between characters. Another of its dichotomies is tradition and modernity, a duality preying on the mind of the ageing composer in Richard Powers’ Orfeo. As he flees the authorities, wanted for alleged bioterrorism, we learn about his past and present, with musical aphorisms marking the shifts from one to the other.

Ambitious framing devices are to be found in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus and Italo Calvino’s genre-hopping If on a winter’s night a traveller. The basis of the former is a series of interviews between Spiegelman and his father, a Holocaust survivor. In the latter, the reader’s attempts to find a particular book sets off a sequence of seemingly unrelated stories, each of which are cut short after a single chapter.

Prejudice and penitentiaries

Pulling together differing perspectives on the same events, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace – adapted for television in 2017 by Mary Harron and Sarah Polley – is a ‘blend of fictional and historical voices’. The novel’s subject is Grace Marks, a Victorian media sensation convicted for murder. Visited in her penitentiary by a well-intentioned doctor, Grace weaves an account of her life, making sure to keep it ‘rich in incident’.

It took Arundhati Roy twenty years to publish The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her 2017 follow-up to The God of Small Things. Her debut novel, set in the Indian village of Ayemenem, tackles topics of forbidden romance and prejudice. The protagonist of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, a one-time model called Maria, is no stranger to societal pressures, worn down by the overlapping power dynamics of her profession and her ex-partner.

Unhappy families

Jesse Vogel, the surgeon in Joyce Carol Oates’s Wonderland, is championed for his knowledge of the brain, but is yet to understand the human mind. A misogynist and philanderer, his actions are underpinned – even if not excused – by a traumatic past. Isabel Allende’s epic The House of the Spirits may have its fantastical elements – clairvoyants and ghosts – but the eccentric family at its core wrestles with household politics regardless.

In Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, food writer Rachel turns to a different form of magic: culinary wizardry. Left reeling by her husband’s extramarital affair, she shares her thoughts with us the only way she knows how: as a narrative in which she can ‘take control, make people laugh, and ease her lingering symptoms of hurt’. It also acts as a good excuse to discuss all manner of delicious dishes, from mashed potatoes to Key lime pie.

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