Monday, 18 January 2016

Review: 'A Guide to Berlin' by Gail Jones

Vladimir Nabokov is one of the most well-known Russian authors and his Pale Fire has been on my to-read list for a while. So when I saw A Guide to Berlin, a novel based on one of his short stories I figured there was no better way to prepare myself for starting his book than by starting with Gail Jones. And it was definitely one hell of a rollercoaster ride. Thanks to Netgalley, Harvil Secker and Random House for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/01/2016
Publisher: Harvil Secker; Random House
We travel to find ourselves; to run away from ourselves. 
‘A Guide to Berlin’ is the name of a short story written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1925, when he was a young man of 26, living in Berlin. 
A group of six international travellers, two Italians, two Japanese, an American and an Australian, meet in empty apartments in Berlin to share stories and memories. Each is enthralled in some way to the work of Vladimir Nabokov, and each is finding their way in deep winter in a haunted city. A moment of devastating violence shatters the group, and changes the direction of everyone’s story. 
Brave and brilliant, A Guide to Berlin traces the strength and fragility of our connections through biographies and secrets.
A Guide to Berlin is the kind of novel that you need to think over after you've finished it. It's a little bit like a thriller or suspense novel in that sense, where you have to take a step back and try to understand how everything you've read comes together. The set up is an absolutely fascinating one, with a group of international visitors to Berlin coming together because of a shared fascination for Nabokov and the powers of language. As each performs a 'speak-memory', a speech in which each recounts his or her life to the other five and a reference to the title of Nabokov's autobiography Speak, Memory, the reader really gets to know all six and Jones manages to drive her points about language, memory and speaking home. You can't help but know someone after they share themselves through language with you, which sounds obvious, but is actually made beautifully explicit in this book.

The book's main character is Cass, an Australian who has run to Berlin to find herself. She is something of a reluctant main character, I'd argue. She isn't very forthcoming and you only really get to know her towards the end of the novel. At times it feels as if the reader is a seventh member of the club, shortly dropping into these people's lives and then leaving them again. The only problem I had with the book is that it seems to constantly leave you hanging. Jones gets beautifully deep with these characters but then moves away again with seeming easy. The intensity of certain moments is sometimes unsatisfactorily balanced with the calm tone of the novel. Perhaps this frustration is intentional since speaking of memory can only get one so close before you hit another barrier and it turns out you may not know people as well as you thought.

Gail Jones' writing is one of the big draws of A Guide to Berlin. Ranging from stunning descriptions to quiet character moments, she really offers the reader every chance to get close and attached to these characters. Her descriptions of Berlin were especially effective as the city became something of an extra character in the book, affecting each of the characters differently. Jones manages to write in a highly literary way and play with words without alienating readers who may not be as comfortable with highly prosaic text. A Guide to Berlin celebrates language but also, indirectly, explains some of its power through examples and as such is a great book for anyone who might want to try the verbose Nabokov. I myself am in the process of reading his Pale Fire and his play with words, his willingness to go the extra mile just to get alliteration in, it requires some working up to.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Overall I really enjoyed A Guide to Berlin. It's plot is a mix between literary fiction and suspense means that you'll want to keep reading no matter what. Although I somehow left the book feeling unfulfilled I'd definitely recommend it it to fans of literary fiction and Russian literature.

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