Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells | Review

What happens when the Mother who left returns to her family after a substantial amount of time? And what happens to the Mother who stayed in her place? These are only a handful of questions that Virginia Macgregor raises in her utterly wonderful second novel 'The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells'. Rooted in the importance of family and maternal bonds, it follows the story of Norah, returning to her home on the fictional Willoughby Street and facing her turblant teenage daughter, her bewildered husband and her conflicted best friend/rival.

   The writing is so sharp yet comforting, Macgregor easily taps into the many personas that cover the novel, ranging from young Willa obsessed with family unity and foxes, to the family dog Louis who simply wants to protect those he loves from danger. From this, we witness a family begin to come apart as slowly as you turn the pages, every conversation is completely absorbing and bursts with the same charm and familiarity as 'What Milo Saw'. I could be wrong, but there is a slight nod to 'Milo' through a particular character, known only as the boy with 'the squinty eyes'. The shifting perspective adds a unique and interesting narrative to the novel, as it is often confined to the interior household over the course of four days, particular through the eyes of young Willa. Her charm completely transforms her into the most likable character, a child who never quite understands the complex family dynamic that is sprung upon her, yet is completely open and welcoming to everything, in contrast to her teenage sister Ella, who longs to bury any mention or memory of Norah in any way she can. Willa's particular way of seeing the world is fascinating and poignant, and Macgregor writes with such sincerity and emotion, you really wish you had the same optimism as Willa.

   Then we have Norah herself, who immediately from the offset you dismiss as the heartless Mother who abandoned her family, as Society has a tendency to do, but when Norah has her chance to speak, she uncovers so much more than you would expect, and it wasn't simply a matter of packing up and leaving. Macgregor, through Norah, tackles so many issues that face contemporary Britain today but ones that are so easily overlooked, loneliness, depression, grief, long-term illness to name but a few, but she writes in the most accessible way that will guarantee to warm your heart, and change your perception of why people have to leave, rather than why they choose to leave. I shed many tears whilst reading this novel, and no doubt it will stir many emotions in many readers. The writing becomes extraordinarily vivid at times, conjuring gorgeous images through colour or nature, the bursting Hummingbird at the end of the novel being a particular highlight.

   Profoundly humane and insightful, Macgregor's second novel is an utter delight. Simple in prose but bold in ideas, 'The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells' is about what it means to love your family, to learn how to forgive and how to understand. Bloomin' Brilliant.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Review | Deadpool

Glaring into the camera after mercilessly executing a barrage of gun-wielding goons, Deadpool sniffs the fresh smoke from his gun, sighs and exclaims to the audience "Oh, I'm touching myself tonight." This fresh, self-referential humour is exactly what Deadpool intends to showcase, as opposed to the meaty and tiresome Marvel adventures of late. Ryan Reynolds isn't just 'playing' Deadpool, he IS Deadpool through and through. He swears, has sex, is known for breaking the fourth wall, cracking jokes in the blink of an eye and always maintains a filthy sense of humour that will be familiar to the die-hard fans of the character. It's a shame however, that the film often gets bogged down with an origin story that it intentionally trying to parody.
   The film begins with the famous "Merc with a mouth" already in full suit, slicing and dicing his way to a man he only refers to as 'Francis', before the meta humour kicks in and he's telling us about who he had to 'fondle' to get his own movie. (Hint, it rhymes with Polverine). From there, we are shown in disjointed flashbacks to how he became the Deadpool we all know and love, cue the aching pains of an origin story that can't even be saved by the many laugh-out-loud moments that Reynolds conjurs up. In short, Wade Wilson is a former special forces operative-turned-mercenary that is diagnosed with terminal cancer and submits himself to excruciating experiments from Ajax (Ed Skrein) that end up with Wade looking horribly disfigured but being able to heal himself at a rapid rate. From there, the plot is as wafer thin and predictable as any Marvel film in the last 10 years. But Reynold's relentlessness in the characterisation of Deadpool distracts you from any of that, you're more focused on the rapid-fire quips he's firing rather than what he's doing. You can tell he's having the time of his laugh under the costume, and shows great care about the character and therefore the fans, as really, the film is for them.

   The problem is, the meta-humour and the constant wise-cracks take a hit in consistency and pace. Moments of pure brilliance such as Deadpool wondering out of James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart, who will be Professor X, or in the same scene bemoaning the fact due to budget restraints, only two X-Men are present throughout the whole film, are undercut through dull scenes of Wilson attempting to find his girlfriend, or Ajax plotting his next move against Deadpool. Though it's genuinely funny to see the character stick two fingers up at the studio that gave him his own film, and it reinforces the character the fans want to see, it becomes as formulaic and as tiresome as the source material it is trying to poke fun at. One can only suppose the studio needed a more watered down Deadpool (let's not discuss Deadpool's 'other' on-screen appearance) to appeal to a more mass market audience.

   Because this is Deadpool's film, the rest of the cast become completely sidetracked and forgettable. Ajax is the typical two-dimensional 'British Villain' and T.J Miller has a few lines that warrant a chuckle, but is in no league with Reynolds. Funnily, Wilson's girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Beccarin) matches him quip for quip and showcases enough sporadic humour that make her interesting, it is just a shame she isn't given more screen time and is instead reduced to the eye-rolling 'damsel in distress' role.

   Brilliantly funny in moments and incredibly faithful to the source material, Deadpool will no doubt please die-hard fans of the character but unfortunately the disjointed pace, formulaic and wafer-thin plot and lack of consistent meta-humour means we still haven't got the Deadpool we truly know and love. However, Reynolds easily holds his own as the wise-cracking merc, and has a blast with it, which makes it a refreshing highlight in the Superhero genre.

Monday, 1 February 2016

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara

   This morning, I read the last 20 pages of Hanya Yanagihara's 'A Little Life' and I still find myself dwelling over the horrendous nature of the story and its many disturbing factors. The book spans over a long 700 pages, revolving around a group of friends, Jude, Willem, JB and Malcom, from their twenties to their fifties residing in an alternate version of America, though the characters change and grow older, the world around them stays questionably fixed. Importantly, through the tragedy of the central character, Jude St. Francis, one finishes the novel with an incredible outlook on the very essence of what it means to be human, how we can be made to suffer and to simply exist.

   Written in dense, and often complex, prose, Yanagihara takes her time in establishing the four characters and the social circle they create within themselves, which makes for an incredibly slow start. But by the final act of the novel, you instantaneously recognise why this was done. Yanagihara creates characters that arouse a certain familiarity, Willem wants to make it as an actor, JB flourishes in experimental art, Malcom thrives as an Architect and Jude becomes a high-profile lawyer, we casually dip in and out as casually as friends meet for coffee. Importantly they all conjure up a chemistry between themselves that is admirable and rewarding, yet easily discoverable within our own self, the sincerity of human relationships. We become so close and intimate with these characters so much so that I felt like I was living in that very apartment in downtown Manhattan with Willem and Jude; by the end of the novel it was truly heartbreaking to say goodbye to these characters. Though the narrative is mostly Jude's perspective, we do get fleeting moments of JB, Willem, Malcom and Jude's adoptive parents. The trouble is, outside of this group narrative, other characters are pushed aside in order to progress the narrative. Names pop up every so often, but we never know what they say or how they feel. This is an exclusive narrative limited to a group of friends left to explore the world.

    This is not to say 'A Little Life' is an easy read. Once Jude emerges as the central protagonist, we are given excerpts of the troubled past Jude speaks of, and it is as disturbing as you can imagine. Yanagihara's writing of this difficult matter of sexual and physical abuse is graphic and utterly heart-wrenching, that at times I had to simply put down the novel and take a moment before carrying on. Yet the sheer, unforgiving yet compelling nature of the novel absorbs you entirely, time after time your heart breaks for "St. Jude" as he is often nicknamed, but still the novel leaves you with the tiniest amount of hope that things could, and might, get better. I suppose the title 'A Little Life' seems apt, the scale of human life, though grand it may seem, is relatively small and quick, and though Jude falls and falls, there is always a little life in him that seems to hold on in the most gruesome and unimaginable circumstances.

Quintessentially 'A Little Life' is a novel about the raw essence of humanity, what goodness it may bring and what horrors it can succumb to. Truly, I have never read a book that crushed my heart the way Yanagihara did nor will I be able to forget Jude, or Willem or even JB and the impact they made on my own life. Outstanding, disturbing and thoroughly engrossing, 'A Little Life' will trap you in its anguish and will shake you to your very soul, refusing to leave your mind. An absolute triumph.