The first reads of 2022.

Happy New Year! I’ve been on a reading streak and finished 4 out of planned 52 books.

Joseph Conrad “An Outcast of the Islands”

Almayer’s Folly is a story about a Dutch trader and his failed ambitions but also so much more. 

Kaspar Almayer  is a trader in the jungle of Borneo who has never seen his native Europe but idealises it as a a paradise almost. Tom Lingard, known as the King of the seas, uses him for his purposes: marries Almayer off to a Malay girl he rescued, and promises a gold mine of riches, for the finding of which he uses Almayer’s money. Except he eventually disappears never to be heard from again. Almayer is left to his own schemes- sends his daughter Nina to Singapore, dreams of the British,  gets driven out of business by an Arab,  finds himself in conflict with the local chief Rajah Lakamba but most of all he wants to take Nina and go live in his perfect Europe. The Dutch don’t really care about him.  All his ventures fail, and it’s  symbolised by his unfinished house- his “folly”. Then he finds an ally in Dain Maroola, a noble from Bali but Dain and Nina fall in love, which puts an end to Almayer’s plans.  All he’s got left is his unfinished house- Folly.

The novel is adventurous. Conrad wanted to carve out a new region in fiction in the style of Kipling and Stevenson. It signals his later themes and is in itself a story with complex human relations and Conrad’s understanding of human nature. Almayer has strong prejudices against marrying Lingard’s  adopted daughter, he also considers Dain not good enough for his daughter. He doesn’t understand his wife and he hates her. On her part, Mrs Almayer has her own perspective on being “saved” by Lingard. She has a voice and agency to show what it actually meant for her and it’s not as simple as bring rescued. Almayer’s makes the mistake of not asking why Nina, his daughter of mixed roots, ends up escaping Singapore and he seems unable  to imagine what life must have been for her there, even when he gets hints about it. Nina is a strong character, she carves a path for herself. Arabs, Malays, Europeans share similar vices, desires and ambitions in this story. It’s possible to sympathise with Almayer too and it’s always striking to me  how Conrad’s characters are strangers to their own cultures, in this case Nina and Almayer and Almayer’s wife, although both Nina and her mother quickly adapt, whereas Almayer cannot. Thetrs a multitude of perspectives and each character is driven by their one desires. Almayer cannot escape , for Nina there’s still a chance.

It’s not a novel to be overlooked in my opinion. Nina has always been a favourite of mine.

No two human beings understand each other. They can understand but their own voices.

Joseph Conrad,”Almayer’s Folly”

Mitch Albom The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto

Everyone joins a band in this life. And what you play always affects someone. Sometimes, it affects the world.

Mitch Albom

A beautiful love letter to music and the music each of us makes in our lives and how the music affects others, but also about connections and bonds and how our kindness affects others and also about coincidences or providences that guide our lives. It’s a sweeping story spanning from the protagonist’s childhood to his death, through mamy problems and storms he lived through. Does music play to make a career? Does music need anything more than one’s passion ? Albom skilfully navigates the trappings of the music business, while offering a look into its history and presenting a soulful story about talent and the change it can bring.

I loved Frankie. I called him stupid at times. I kind of wanted to shake him MANY times. I wept for him and his mother and father.

It’s told from the perspective of what music is. Insanely lyrical with mamy perspectives, it’s like a song for many voices. I sincerely loved the way the novel was structured. It’s completely magical with unique storytelling, rich characters and characterisation. An unforgettable journey. Mitch Albom has the knowledge to write this love letter to music, and I loved how he credited the artists for whom he created fictional lives to insert Frankie Presto. It’s a story of pure emotions, lovely and compelling, it speaks to and captures my sentiments thoroughly. I love how he begins each chapter. There’s so much reflection on what music is and how are lives are musical. It’s touching. So beautifully written.

An instant favourite. This is my kind of book and my kind of story. Put it on my physical shelves.

Joseph Conrad, An Outcast of the Islands

“When he stepped off the straight and narrow path of his peculiar honesty, it was with an inward assertion of unflinching resolve to fall back again into the monotonous but safe stride of virtue as soon as his little excursion into the wayside quagmires had produced the desired effect.”.

Joseph Conrad, An Outcast of the Islands

An Outcast of the island was Conrad’s second novel and continued some threads from Almayer’s Folly. It’s the second novel but in the story we go back to the past, the events are unfolding when Nina is still a baby. This is one of Conrad’s book I paid little attention to, but  I was wrong. Willems is a very interesting character.

What makes a man good or bad? The environment? His desires? The story focuses on Peter Willems, an ambitious trader who, at 17, escaped from a Dutch ship and came under the care of Tom Lingard. He secured him a position with Hudig and Co, a trading company. Willems marries Hudig’s daughter but then embezzles money to be one of his partners. He is found out and his wife chases him out of the house. To escape humiliation he looks for Lingard again. Lingard brings him to Sambir but work with Almayer doesn’t work out …but he meets Alissa, the daughter of the  blind  ex-pirate Omar, friend to the scheming Babalatchi. Together with Lakamba they develop a plan to fight against the current Rajah Patalolo and use Willems against his old friend, Lingard, all for Aissa. There’s a lot of scheming in this novel.

Willrms is arrogant,  scheming, ambitious and weak. He considers himself an outsider and I feel all roads lead him there  through all he does. Lingard, while seems good, aldo has w certain arrogance about him. Lakamba, Babalatchi are scheming. There’s nothing purely black or white in Conrad’s world He shows human weaknesses as he knew them, doesn’t idealise, his characters are flawed. He shows the complexity of human and racial relations. everyone loves and schemes to protect themselves. Almayer, although scheming and full of jealousy, does care for his daughter. We also learn more about Lakamba and Babalatchi. Willems escapes twice, he cannot do it for the third time.

‘He was cowed. He was cowed by the immense cataclysm of his disaster. Like most men, he had carried solemnly within his breast the whole universe, and the approaching end of all things in the destruction of his own personality filled him with paralyzing awe. Everything was toppling over. He blinked his eyes quickly, and it seemed to him that the very sunshine of the morning disclosed in its brightness a suggestion of some hidden and sinister meaning. In his unreasoning fear he tried to hide within himself. He drew his feet up, his head sank between his shoulders, his arms hugged his sides. Under the high and enormous tree soaring superbly out of the mist in a vigorous spread of lofty boughs, with a restless and eager flutter of its innumerable leaves in the clear sunshine, he remained motionless, huddled up on his seat: terrified and still”.

An outcast of the Islands

Can you choose to fall back to safe stride of virtue? Can you choose to only stop at a “little excursion”?  I admit, i find the opening to Outcast downright  intriguing and it definitely sets the tone of Willems’ struggle. 

Conrad’s characters definitely feel human. Almayer has moments of tenderness towards his daughter and that’s genuine. Willems does not have the same instincts towards his son. He’s too focused on himself and his ego. Lingard has a rather big ego too but at least he does try to help people. I still find him unlikeable.

Shirley Jackson,The Haunting of Hill House

Jackson really had a knack for writing about the psychological unravelling of vulnerable characters in a manner that gets under your skin.

Eleanor , the central character, is invited to take part in a live-in experiment at a mansion rumored to be haunted. She’s sensitive and has an active imagination and seems to attract supernatural occurrences. She longs for acceptance and in due course attaches herself to other characters. Along her we meet the doctor behind the plan, a free spirit Theo who rejects Eleanor’s attachment and Luke who’s meant to inherit the house . Ensemble characters include Mrs Dudley, the housekeeper not unlike Mrs Danvers. She feels even more sinister because her only lines pertain to order of things in the house.

Occurrences and manifestations begin as soon as they step into the house. Eleanor is most affected. Shes almost maniacal. The slow unravelling of her psychology as she is driven to wildness is affecting. The house itself is built at weird angles, it’s disorienting, nothing is ever where it’s meant to be and has a long and interesting story behind it. There’s a touch of magic snout it as it feels it can come alive at any moment ,with its statues and there’s a sense something lurks behind every corner.

The tension, uncertainty put this book up there with The Turn of the Screw for me.. I both hate and pity Eleanor and, like with Merrikat from We have always lived in the castle I felt she’s a bit like a pixie, especially with her active, beguiling imagination seeking fantastical worlds places and stories to call home and be herself, she just wants to be happy.

“once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again”.

But the way she goes about it is part of what’s unsettling.

Jackson’s psychological terror and unravelling of characters really get under your skin. It’s a gripping story to read in one day, my favourite parts are about the house, its story, abut how the characters respond to the fright. Good read. Interesting house.

It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.

Shirley Jackson

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