A bad attack of flu left me very little energy, needing to retreat to bed every day after only a few hours of mild activity. Besides sleeping, I managed to put in some good reading. Three books by Sarah Quigley, NZ-born author now resident in Berlin, starting with The Conductor (2011, Vintage Book) and today, Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement (2010, Doubleday). Camilla Gibb is Canadian. Both women have doctorates from Oxford; they're about the same age, I think - mid to late forties. Quigley's D.Phil is in literature and Gibb's in Social Anthropology.
Their books are cultural tours de force: Quigley's conductor is Russian, a musician, living in Stalin's Leningrad during the siege, Gibb's Vietnamese live in modern-day Hanoi. I have not visited either country, so I may be ill placed to evaluate the veracity of their characters. I found myself trusting what was described which doesn't always happen. All the more so when I realised that Sarah Quigley lived for a while in what used to be East Berlin - not the Soviet Union, but a State similar in its Communist ethos. I wonder whether Camilla Gibb has a Zen connection which helped bring Vietnamese Buddhist culture alive for her.
Most of the important characters are male. They proliferate in The Conductor - various friends, teachers, critics. No female voice at all, except for an enchanting chapter dedicated to a girl in love with her wonderful cello. It's a bit like reading Anna Karenina - all those Russian names - though Quigley has done her best to simplify them for us. Gibb is less demanding: she has limited herself to two men and one woman in Beauty. Her woman, Maggie, who grew up in the USA, is much less interesting than either Hung, the wise, humble man who cooks perfect pho, and Tu, the young tourist guide. These are believable men, according to a aman who read this book .
Quigley writes authoritatively about musi and it was marvellous to be in Shostakovich's mind as he struggled to compose as well as cope with the conflicting demands of his gift and his family. If The Conductor has a fault it lies in the first 100 pages. One has the feeling of wading through somewhat marshy land, hoping for future relief, waiting for the story to acquire a clear dynamic. The characters don't appear very different from each other, being men of a similar age, so that one struggles a little to know whose head one is in. This is not helped by Quigley's tendency to wait to the end of the first paragraph to tell us whose point of view is taken. Having immediately carried on to read two other books by Quigley, Shot (2003, Virago) and After Robert (1999, Penguin), I realise that this slow start and the slight confusion about the characters are a part of her style. I enjoyed all her books.
Gibb manages transitions in her own particular way - from chapter to chapter and paragraph to paragraph. It is almost amusing to flip the pages and realise that she inserts the POV character's name in the very first sentence - I imagine her going back over her work after the initial drafts and checking that it's there. Gibb's characters are more differentiated - a young man, an old man, a woman, which provides the reader with a track to follow.
I also liked these books because the characters are introspective, complex and struggling. They struggle like most of us, with complexity, with morality, with their own natures. The writer has approached them with compassion. That compassion awakens a sympathetic chord, at least in this reader.