Little Eyes, State of Wonder and The Capital
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin
This has had lots of glowing reviews but I’m afraid I gave up half way through. The premise sounded interesting. A craze develops for cute-looking 5G gadgets called Kentukis. These are intended as a kind of artificial pet for their owners, but are only active when “inhabited” by other individuals who have signed up to be “Kentuki-dwellers” (they can see and hear through the Kentuki’s camera and mic and make the odd noise, but communication is not straightforward). The novel uses an episodic structure and there seemed to be no links between the different narratives, so it reads like a series of short stories. That in itself wouldn’t have been a problem for me – I can think of plenty of other books with an episodic/disjointed structure that I have enjoyed e.g. this one or this one (both better value than this novel). The trouble was that I didn’t really care what happened to any of the characters (whether owners or Kentuki-dwellers), there wasn’t much going in terms of plot and the idea of the Kentukis wasn’t particularly original or well developed. For a longer critique (including some thoughts as to whether this is getting an easier ride in terms of reviews because it’s seen as lit fic more than sci-fi), see my review on LibraryThing – but there are also lots of glowing reviews there, so it obviously worked for some people.
State of Wonder by Anne Patchett
After Little Eyes, it was a real pleasure to read this (actually, it would have been a pleasure to read this whatever I had read before it). It had most things I look for in a novel: good plot and characterisation, high quality writing and some interesting things going on in terms of ideas. Marina Singh does unglamorous lab work for a pharmaceutical firm but is asked by her employers to go to the Amazon rain forest to find out what happened to her dead colleague, Anders Eckmann. He went there to make contact with the elusive Dr Annick Swenson, who is conducting field work with an isolated Amazon tribe in the hope of creating a breakthrough drug – but seems to have gone AWOL.
In the hands of a lesser author such material might easily have become cliché e.g. the pharma company would’ve been 100% evil, whilst the Amazon tribe would’ve symbolised what is missing from modern Western society, bla bla bla. But the pharma company is not evil, it’s just doing what pharma companies do (trying to develop new drugs which, unfortunately, sometimes leads to other beneficial lines of inquiry being neglected – but that’s essentially down to market failure, not the sheer evilness of big pharma). The Amazon tribe is not idealized either – and neither is the Amazon itself. And a lesser author would probably have been content with the somewhat severe and enigmatic Dr Swenson being little more than a female version of Kurtz from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (with which some parallels are no doubt intended). But again, the book resists going down that path and eventually gives us more insight into this initially mysterious character than we get into Conrad’s Kurtz. It’s also the story of the central character, Marina, finally coming to terms with the loss of her father and a number of other events in her past. Will definitely be reading more by this author.
The Capital by Robert Menasse
This is billed by the publishers as a “House of Cards” for the EU – a strapline which, it seems to me, makes it almost guaranteed to disappoint some readers because the ins and outs of EU bureaucracy (such as they are) simply cannot compare with the no holds barred Washington politics depicted in that series. Fortunately I took that sales puff with a very hefty pinch of salt. I found parts of the book very entertaining and I thought the author really nailed some aspects of the EU and the internal politics of the Commission. On the other hand, there are many flaws, outlined at greater length in my Librarything review and so ultimately, for me, it was a disappointment (the biggest problem is that the author seems to have ambitions to make a big statement about the EU and how far it falls short of its ideals - which is fair enough, but I'm just not sure that works if you've spent the last several hundred pages taking the piss out of the very thing you are now suggesting could be truly great, if only it could realise its potential). Anyway, there may well be a great novel to be written about the EU but sadly, this isn’t it.
Posted by Paul Samael. Posted In : Book reviews