Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

I was inspired to read this novel when I heard BBC Radio 4 was going to be broadcasting a radio drama adaptation of it this spring, so I figured it must be a good book, even though I had never heard of it.  I quickly checked to see if my library had a copy, and they did.

This book is part of the "Hainish cycle" written by Le Guin, a series of loosely connected science fiction novels that can be read alone, and which detail a distant future in which humans from various planets attempt to set up an interstellar confederacy.

In "The Left Hand of Darkness", we follow an envoy sent by this confederacy to the planet Gethen (or Winter, a planet where it is bitterly cold and snows most of the year) whose mission is to peacefully convince the leaders of the planet to join the confederacy, for purposes of trade and communication.  At the beginning of the novel, the envoy, Genly Ai, has been on Gethen for some time, and has had time to become acquainted with the way of life in one of the planet's countries, Karhide.  He has struck up an uneasy alliance with the King's prime minister, Estraven, and is hoping for an audience with the King.  Unexpectedly, the prime minister is sacked and exiled, and Genly is refused by the king, leaving him feeling betrayed and angry with Estraven.

Estraven flees Karhide to neighboring and rival country Orgoreyn, where he can hide, while Genly leaves the capital of Karhide and goes further afield to see more of the outlying areas of the country and learn more about the Foretellers, a group of people who can intuit the future.  From there he decides he will try his luck in convincing the leaders of Orgoreyn to join the interstellar confederacy, since he has not been successful in Karhide.  In Orgoreyn he is received enthusiastically by the leaders but behind his back he is sabotaged, and when he does not heed the subtle warnings given to him by Estraven, he finds himself arrested and sent to a brutal labor camp.

Slowly perishing from the harsh conditions in the camp, Genly is rescued just in time by Estraven, who decides they must undertake an 800 mile trek across a glacier to get Genly back over the border into Karhide. Estraven believes there is a chance, given the political situation, that the king can now be persuaded to join the confederacy.  During this long, dangerous and frigid trek, Genly and Estraven form a deep bond of friendship, despite their previous misunderstandings and inability to accept their differences, including their different modes of communication and sexuality.

One of the major threads of the book is the Gethenians' androgynous sexuality and how this impacts society and relationships between individuals.  Genly, as an outsider looking in, finds it fascinating but very confusing, and until he has a better grasp of it, it effects his relationship with Estraven and others.  Another major theme is the idea of culture shock and how one navigates being placed into a completely alien culture; and how one's perspective towards one's home culture changes drastically but at the same time without awareness - not until, that is, one is confronted with that home culture once again.  This is something I can definitely relate to.

This was a fascinating book, not only because of the highly original characters, Le Guin's dignified vintage prose, but also in the way the chapters alternated between Genly's dispatches to his superiors, Estraven's diary entries, and old Gethenian folk tales and legends, which enables the reader to really form a full and vivid picture of Le Guin's imagined world.  Excellent read!

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Swimmer by Roma Tearne (2010)

A random library find by an author I had never heard of before.  Roma Tearne is originally from Sri Lanka, but fled the country when she was a child and now lives in the UK.  She has published five novels, and "The Swimmer", her fourth, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

The originality of this novel took me by surprise.  The story starts with Ria, a middle-aged single poet who lives a secluded life in an old house she inherited from her uncle.  One night she sees someone swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden, and she begins to suspect that the swimmer is also sneaking into her house, stealing food.  She discovers that he is a young illegal refugee from Sri Lanka, Ben, and they strike up a tentative friendship that soon progresses into an unlikely romance.

A tragic turn in the story shifts the book's focus from Ria to another character, Anula, Ben's mother, who must come to England, and is confronted with being in a completely foreign environment and how this deeply affects her, and her life when she finally returns to Sri Lanka.

Finally, the third part of the book is told from the perspective of Lydia, Ria's daughter, through whom we learn of more tragedy that played out in these characters' lives.  Much of this novel is dark and very heavy, especially given the author's exploration of what it means to be an illegal immigrant in the UK, what is was like to live in Sri Lanka as a Tamil,  and extremist political hatred that are secondary themes of the book.  However, the ending leaves a small opening for a bit of hope, which is gripping after all the hard times Tearne put her characters through.