psychological thriller

Another Murakami Masterpiece

This is my review of Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami.

I’m a big fan of Murakami’s. I’ve read a few of his books, and irrespective of whether or not I find the story itself appealing (I’m looking at you, Kafka on the Shore), his prose never fails to carry me to a peaceful place. His books ought to be read on a Sunday afternoon on the balcony, as opposed to a rush hour commute. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, his non-fiction book (with a self-explanatory title), reads as though a particularly down-to-earth middle-aged man is sitting next to you on the bus and sharing a story.

The translation of this particular book was released fairly recently- August 2014- but I only got my hands on a copy this month. And I’m glad, it was definitely worth a read.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a man in his early thirties who works in railway construction. He is ridiculously happy with his career, but there’s a hole in his life. He’s a loner, and not by choice. When he was in high school, he had a group of four close friends. Each one of them has a colour in their name, except Tsukuru- hence the ‘colourless’ label. They did everything together… until he moved out of his hometown for university. He visited often, but he was suddenly shunned by the entire group for no apparent reason. This caused him to spiral into a depression (Murakami’s now-familiar lonely college man stereotype now fits) that changed him permanently.

Now he’s dating a sophisticated, beautiful woman, but she finds the whole backstory of his high school friends very strange. She believes that the abandonment he experienced in his youth is affecting all his relationships even a decade later. Some Google-fu, and she has tracked down the four of them. Tsukuru sets off on a trip to visit all of them and find out what went wrong.

The story takes a few turns at this point, which is why I liked it so much. Murakami’s books are generally not burdened with much of a plot, and having an actual storyline really made this book shine. The ending is satisfyingly vague- he drops just enough hints for you to figure out what’s up, without making anything explicit.

4.5/5 from me. Read this if you’re a fan of laid back writing styles and psychological thrillers.

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The Perfect Murder

This is my review of Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.

I really liked The Talented Mr Ripley, and had my eye out for another novel by Patricia Highsmith. Managed to acquire this book legally online and devoured it in a sitting. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a semi-abridged textbook edition of the story. As they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

This book has a very interesting plot- two men meet on a train and trade murders. Charley Bruno is a playboy who has had a disagreement with his father, and Guy Haines’ ex-wife is trying to sabotage his career as an architect. There is no motive, no acquaintance even, between the murderer and victim. And so they will escape without any trouble, or so they hope.

This is more like a psychological thriller than a murder mystery. While the psychopathic Charley murders Guy’s wife promptly without any qualms, Guy finds himself forced into a corner with no alternative (and a creepy stalker).

While the story itself is interesting, the execution and pace of the novel is not great, possibly because of the editing/ censorship of the version I read. I’d recommend the movie instead, you can’t go wrong with Hitchcock. 3/5.

Be Afraid…

This is my review of We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson.

I saw this book online (I spend more time reading about reading than actually reading, if that makes sense). It’s a short read, so I decided to give it a shot, and went in completely blind- I had no idea about the theme, genre, nothing. And I got lucky! This is a very very good story.

Mary Katherine Blackwood (aka Merricat) and her sister Constance live with their ailing Uncle Julian in a large old house. Which seems fairly normal, except for the fact that it isn’t. Merricat is very strange (understatement!) and Constance has not left the house in six years. Eventually, we hear the whole story- all the remaining members of their family were poisoned six years ago, with Constance the main suspect. She was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but their neighbours are still suspicious.

One fine day, their cousin Charles Blackwood stops by for a visit. He seems to be interested in the family fortune that’s lying around in a safe, and Merricat is upset that her perfect little world is being disrupted.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll stop there. But trust me, this story is super spooky, in a Gothic, insane way. You’ll spot the twist far before it arrives, but it’ll scare you nonetheless.

The book left some things open to interpretation. Witchcraft or harmless superstition? What were cousin Charles’ true intentions? I was curious enough to do a Google search. The beauty of literature is that noone can say anything for sure. But one interesting piece of information I found was that Shirley Jackson herself suffered from severe agoraphobia while she was writing this novel, which probably accounts for the general anti-social behaviours and themes in the book. Unfortunately, this was to be her last published work before her death.

4.5/5 from me, and I can’t wait to read her other books.

Bonus: Shirley Jackson has also written a controversial, famous short story called The Lottery that was first published in The New Yorker. It initially reminded me of the English readers we studied in school- short, simplistic, with vague commentary on society- and then BAM, it gets dark fast. The most inoffensively offensive short story I’ve ever read.

Here’s one for Halloween

This is my review of Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin.

From what I’ve heard, the movie based on this book is something of a cult classic. Honestly, I just picked this one up because I wanted something quick-I’m way behind on my Goodreads book goal for the year. It was surprisingly good; I expected something much more ‘pulp fiction’.

Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are a young newly-married couple looking for a house in NYC. They fall in love with a four bedroom apartment and immediately move in, despite its history of bad luck and strange occurrences. Rosemary wants to have children, but Guy is an upcoming actor and wants to wait until he makes it big on stage.

They befriend an elderly couple who live in the next apartment. Guy, in particular, becomes very close to them and their circle of strange, but well-meaning, friends. He agrees that it is time for them to have a child, and Rosemary quickly becomes pregnant. Soon after, he gets his big break when another actor mysteriously goes blind and he’s called in as a replacement.

Rosemary is severely ill for the first few months of her pregnancy. She loses weight and craves raw meat. She grows increasingly suspicious of her kindly neighbours, but is unable to pinpoint any malicious intent. She eventually works out the plot, but cannot escape in time.

What I liked- The story is refreshingly unique and subtle. Makes for a quick read. Was successful in creeping me out- what more could I ask from a novel of this genre?

What I didn’t like- The overly simplistic plot would be more appropriate for a short story. As it is, most of the plot focuses on ‘setting the scene’ for the final revelation. It probably makes for a brilliant movie, though.

4/5. Recommended for rainy nights when you want to spook yourself out.

Confession: I’m not as free as I once was, so I’ve resorted to queuing posts weeks/months in advance. Shouldn’t make too much of a difference, I hope.

Pumped Up Kicks

Today’s theme is school shootings. If you didn’t figure that out from the title of the post, please listen to this before proceeding.

Back? Okay.

Last week I read Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. This is a drama-thriller-fluff book about a school shooting and the aftermath, focusing on the personal lives of the killer and victims, and the defense presented by the killer’s lawyer in court.

Quite a few Picoult novels have a similar courtroom setting. It’s quite interesting for a layperson because the role of the attorney in a case like this is to make the guilty seem less guilty.

Picoult handles this disturbing subject quite well. She tries to include several plot twists, though none (bar one) are shocking in the least. And alas, the interesting, thought-provoking twist comes right at the end and is not fully fleshed out. Which makes me wonder if I am giving the author too much credit, and the twist is not as clever as it seems…

The writing style is simplistic and filled with corny dialogues, which I began to sincerely record about 20 pages in:

“He tasted of maple syrup and apologies”
“Hope, Patrick knew, was the exact measure of distance between himself and the person who’d come for help”
“A loose handful of grapes scattered like gasps”

And all this was just the first 150 pages.

3/5. Read it if you want some timepass entertainment.

On the other hand, if you want an intense, chilling portrayal of a school shooting, We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is my nomination. It is written in the form of a series of letters from the mother of a school shooter, and her analysis of what she might have done wrong. Neither the mother nor the son is a pitiable figure; but you can’t help but root for them, especially when you realize that the mom has become the town’s public enemy #1. And the tale only gets more horrific towards the end.

I couldn’t get through this book on the first attempt, and watching the movie gave my friends a couple of sleepless nights. Do read if you like psychological thrillers.

Pretentious Literary Review

Anyone who has studied a second or third language in school is likely to be familiar with amateur literary reviews. The literature section of the syllabus usually consisted of short stories in a variety of different settings. Watered down stories about child marriage in South India, unemployment in the USA during the Great Depression and Norse mythology provided nuggets of insight into different cultures. Also, the stories invariably had hidden, ‘inner’ meanings that were beyond my limited imagination. And linguistic skills, probably.

After years of writing half-hearted analyses of how lamp light is a metaphor for wisdom and how the cutting of one’s hair symbolizes an escape from social norms (or a loss of social status, depending on the context- why can’t these things be consistent?!), I was glad to embrace a career in engineering. Unambiguity is essential in computer languages, a fact that provides me with much reassurance. I remain firmly convinced that all literary devices- similes, metaphors, personification and whatnot- are concepts cooked up by language teachers to harass gullible students. Don’t try to convince me otherwise.

But once in a while, one comes across a piece of work that works clearly and flawlessly on multiple levels.

The other day I came across The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman on someone’s to-read list, tagged as a literary classic. A Google search told me it was a psychological thriller in 6000 words, so I abandoned my buggy code for a while and read it then and there.

On the surface it is a commonplace story of a young mother’s descent into madness during a ‘rest cure’ for what is diagnosed as nerves- post partum depression, maybe. Her description of the unpleasant yellow wall paper in her bedroom serves as an indicator of her weakening grip on reality. It begins with a mild irritation with the vivid colour, and ends with hallucinations of a woman trapped behind the garish patterns on the wall.

So why is this review accompanied by a rant about literary analysis? This story has a real life context that gives it a whole new dimension. Its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, suffered from depression for several years. A renowned physician, Dr S Weir Mitchell, prescribed what was then known as a rest cure- an extended period of time without any intellectual or physical stimulation. After a couple of months of this, Gilman felt herself sinking further into mental illness and began to work on her writing once more. She intended this story to be a warning to Dr Mitchell and other patients.

Gilman was of the belief that the concept of the rest cure stemmed from the patriarchal structure of society at the time. Men were unwilling to allow women to do anything that might eventually allow them to carve an identity for themselves, so they were actively discouraged from writing and painting. Portraying women as having delicate nerves or fragile mental health was an indirect way of subjugating them.

Whether you view the story as a feminist work, or a public service announcement, or merely a psychological thriller is up to you. It works well at any level and makes a good short read, despite the obvious datedness of the language and setting. It is available in the public domain (legally, for a change) at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1952. It’s worth a shot. 3.5/5