I thought it was time I started reviewing the books I’ve read this year, so today I’m catching up with our book group reads discussed in Jan and Feb.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
This was the first book I read this year, managing to squeeze it in just before we met a few days into January.
Lucky Jim was published in 1954 and is dedicated to Philip Larkin. A send up of British academic life at the time, it follows the exploits of Jim Dixon, a young lecturer in medieval history at a provincial university in the Midlands. But is it, as the strapline on my edition’s cover says, ‘the comic novel of our time’ ?
Jim was a Northern grammar school boy, and in a way can’t believe his luck at getting an easy job in this post-war era just coming out of austerity. He finds it hard, however, to fit in amongst the old school professors who are very set in their ways. He has also sort of saddled himself with looking after Margaret, another lecturer who’d ‘cracked up’ over another chap. Meanwhile Professor Welch is planning to throw Jim in at the deep end in the College Open Week:
‘… I thought you might care to tackle the evening lecture the Department’s going to provide, if you could.’
‘Well I would rather like to have a crack at a public lecture, if you think I’m capable of it,’ Dixon managed to say.
‘I thought something like “Merrie England” might do as a subject. Not too academic, and not too … not too … Do You think you could get something together along those sort of lines?’ (p17)
Like many novelists of the 1950s and 60s, Amis wastes no time in dropping us into the action. There is no wasteful introductory text, we have to get to grips with the characters and their situation from the off. I found it did take over fifty pages for me to click with this book, and from then on I was able to see the comedy, which comes thick and fast. Dixon has a student that is more learned than him who is desperate to sign up for his special topic; the ball is also approaching; Welch’s son, Bertrand – a painter, (who is an arse!) comes up with his all too young London girlfriend whom Jim, of course, falls for. Christine just can’t see Bertrand’s faults at first:
‘Having a relationship with an artist;s a very different kettle of fish to having a relationship with an ordinary man.’
There are some great set pieces, a wonderful drunk scene – and JIm careers from one situation to the next, nearly always just managing not to get caught.
This is indeed a great comic novel and probably one of the greats of its particular time. Our Book Group all enjoyed it once we got into it, although we were agreed that we preferred David Lodge’s campus novels. Lucky Jim captured the era and its milieu perfectly. It was nice to have a woman lecturer in the team, even if it was Margaret who suffers for her sex. This book is, overall, an optimistic novel – you could sense Christine, who is still just a teenager was looking forward to life, and Jim, having fantasized about it, finds himself on the brink of possibly getting it. Lucky man! (8.5/10)
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
The subject for our February read was Central America, We had four books on our shortlist, all from or about islands, rather than the mainland …
- The Mambo Kings play songs of love by Oscar Hueljos (Cuban)
- Cuba Libre by Elmore Leonard (set in Cuba)
- How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic) – which was picked out of the hat.
- The Book of Night Women by Marlon James (Jamaican)
The novel is mostly narrated by Yolanda Garcia, the third of the four Garcia girls. Their family had been forced to flee from the Dominican Republic when the girls were young, and she is returning to there to remember her heritage.
She sits with her aunts as they welcome her back. Yolanda can’t feel at home though until she’s had some guavas – and off she goes up the hills and through little villages in their old car searching for the fruit that so embodies the country in her mind. This is a super scene-setting episode – but it is really the only time we get to see much of the world outside the compound where the family lives.
The novel is told in a backward moving time-frame. As it starts in 1989, all four of the girls are making their lives work in the USA. Moving back to the late 1960s, Yolanda tells how they ‘took turns at being the wildest’, but having been a good Catholic girl as a child, Yolanda still wouldn’t sleep with her boyfriends at college when, ‘everyone was sleeping with each other as a matter of principle.’ Growing up they struggled living in the Bronx, with their Hispanic curls and bronzed skin. Their Papi, who was a doctor, was unable to practise until he got a licence and they were hard up when they first arrived.
Then we’re back to when the girls were younger, and the day that the secret police came for their father. Fifi, the youngest tells the how their Papi hid in the house’s secret compartment, and their last day on the island before they fled to New York. In the Dominican Republic, the Garcia girls were privileged, living in a compound for rich folk with all their extended family around them. The late 1950s and 1960s were a turbulent time in Dominican politics as I understand it, but there was very little of this in the novel – at the time it was happening the girls were too young to comprehend and they keep it that way in their narration.
The mother dressed them all alike in diminishing-sized, different color versions of what she wore, so that the husband sometimes joked, calling them the five girls. No one really knew if he was secretly displeased in his heart of hearts that he had never had a son, for the father always bragged, “Good bulls sire cows,”… (p40)
This was an enjoyable read, nicely written, but it wasn’t special. Our book group broadly agreed, going from a bit bland to yes I’d read more by this author. We did find we hadn’t an awful lot to say about it though, possibly because we’d hoped to find out more about life in the Dominican Republic and the situation there – however the clue is in the title really – it’s as much about the girls fitting in the USA as where they were born. (7/10)
Source: Both from my TBR.