Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Books – The Lola Quartet, by Emily St John Mandel

Now before we begin, I know this blog has been a little deserted in the last month. In the tumble of work, Booktube, and (nearly) finishing writing my novel, I got slightly out of the habit of writing book reviews, and then I got really out of the habit of writing book reviews. However, as of today that is changing, for Emily St John Mandel’s The Lola Quartet is far too good to be consigned to a minute’s Booktube wrap up.

I read and reviewed Mandel’s Station Eleven several months ago now, and it was one of my absolute favourite novels of last year. A post-apocalyptic novel that’s much more about people than about the apocalypse, a travelling theatre company who perform Shakespeare in the face of the end of the world, an interesting narrative structure and a lot of well-developed characters with subtle links to one another – it’s a perfect, brilliant, wonderful novel. So I was very excited and very nervous when I picked up The Lola Quartet.

Gavin Sasaki, at the age of twenty-eight, sees a picture of a child who looks very like him, a child with the same surname as his high school girlfriend. This photograph sparks a series of events, which lead ten-year-old mysteries and dangers to rise to the surface, and bring together again five people who’ve lived mostly separate lives since high school. The school jazz quartet – Gavin, Sasha, Jack and Daniel – and Gavin’s girlfriend, Sasha’s sister, Anna.

I think, going into this novel, that I wasn’t expecting it to be as brilliant as Station Eleven, if only because Station Eleven is very brilliant. And yet, there is something truly incredible about The Lola Quartet, and although in a way it’s a smaller story than Station Eleven – there is no apocalypse, no end of the world as we know it – it remains just as powerfully brilliant a novel, just as moving, just as engaging. As in Station Eleven, Mandel here manages to brilliantly capture a range of characters, to keep us engaged with and enthralled with a wide range of individuals, to make us fully know her characters in an impressively short space of time. The novel is ruthlessly and fantastically dramatic, but never feels over the top. This book features drug barons, thefts, long unpaid debts, job losses, mysteries, the threat of death – and yet it is never melodramatic. It feels consistently and terrifyingly real.

We have small apocalypses here too. The book was published in 2012 and is very much set in the wake of the recession. Gavin’s newspaper office is skimmed down to a smaller and smaller staff. His sister Eilo’s Real Estate business flourishes as she buys houses at low rates from people who can’t afford to pay their mortgages. The whole novel takes place under a backdrop of small failures, small societal breakdowns and struggles. It is a story of small losses, small mistakes, leading to bigger losses, bigger mistakes, and the backdrop of a difficult economic climate is very cleverly and atmospherically used in this novel.

So although this may at first glance seem a smaller novel than Station Eleven, what The Lola Quartet deals with is just as broad, as fascinating, as important. The subtle complications between families, addiction, love, money, growing up, the way people change over time, the unreliability of memory, human relationships, the power of music, cause and effect, how one small decision, one moment, can change the courses of a dozen lives – on top of a wealth of fascinating moral questions, issues of responsibility, of right and wrong, of where blame lies, of the decisions that danger and love can push people to make.

Throughout, Mandel’s writing is intense and perfect. In general, for some strange subjective reason I haven’t worked out yet, in contemporary literature I much prefer the first person to the third, especially when the narrative is told in past tense. Third person past tense sometimes has a danger of creating too much narrative distance – something I don’t find in third person present tense, or in first person, for example. Yet Mandel is for me the major exception. Her level of narrative distance, her use of detail – it’s just perfect. Her writing is beautiful, flawless, engaging, moving. It draws you right into the situation, until the plot, the characters, the world feels real. There is a chapter, for example, which is simply Gavin’s remembering a mix of details about his high school girlfriend Anna, and it is so touchingly, so cleverly done, that it is one of the most beautiful passages of literature I have read.

All in all, it’s safe to say that Emily St John Mandel is quickly clambering up to join Jon McGregor and Banana Yoshimoto as one my favourite living authors. I am very much looking forward to reading Last Night in Montreal and The Singer’s Gun in the future, and await the rest of her novels with massive hand-waving excitement. In both the novels I have read by her, she has that perfect balance of an engaging plot, well-drawn characters and simply beautiful writing. I am more than a little bit in love with her books.

Greatest strength: Everything. More specifically, the way in which Mandel’s superb writing carries everything off.

Greatest weakness: I’ll repeat what I said for Station Eleven. I have nothing.

Let’s finish on a quote: Jack had been playing the piano for four and a half hours and under normal circumstances his hands would have been aching by now, but he was high on painkillers and couldn’t feel it…. His roommate had gone to Virginia to rescue a girl whom Jack had imperilled and everything was coming apart around him, but so long as he kept playing he didn’t have to thinking about any of this, so he closed his eyes against the shine and launched once more into Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Next time: Diving Belles, by Lucy Wood

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  1. Oh, I haven't read Station Eleven, but if you say it's brilliant, I definitely need to pump it up my TBR! This is a great review :)