Review: What Happens Now by Jeremy Dyson

What Happens Now
What Happens Now by Jeremy Dyson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last year I enjoyed Jeremy Dyson’s off-kilter, Roald-Dahl-gone-extra-bad visions in the short story collection ‘Never Trust a Rabbit’. I’d been intending to read more by him when I got the chance, so this year I snapped up his novel at the library.

With parts set in the 1980s, and hopping back and forth to the present day, ‘What Happens Now’ took a little while to get going, but that seemed to be a deliberate method to ease the reader into the inner worlds of screwed up minds and early teenage heartache. Once I got into the flow it really drew me in as I tried to figure out how the threads in each chapter wove together. When the devastating revelation is reached it felt like suddenly being at the top of a high roller coaster, and we’re sent into very painful freefall as all the chapters suddenly knit together.

The mystery of a terrible event and who it happens to, and who instigates it, is what kept me gripped from start to finish. A sense of unease vibrates beneath apparently innocent teenage ‘growing up’ and our reactions to it are left for us to figure out along the way. There’s also the bigger question of reality at stake. Is reality only what we make of it? Does God create others who dream like he does? These mysteries make this a bigger story, a more universe- encompassing, morally questioning and curiously spiritual story, than it first appears. Given the era and it actually felt like a more upsetting version of Richard Ayoade’s film, ‘Submarine’, in fact. That’s purely in the era, not the story.

Jeremy Dyson is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers and I’m very glad to have another book of short stories by him on the shelf all ready to go.

SPOILERS BELOW!

In an earlier review of the ‘Kite Runner’ I compared the themes in that book with ‘What Happens Now’ and it’s very interesting how the two authors dealt with something as traumatic as rape and betrayal. I mean, hopefully this event is still very shocking to most readers, and I felt that the way it’s dealt with in ‘WHN’ keeps it clear of melodramatic cliche. It helps that there’s a sympathetic protagonist who makes a roundabout, somewhat surreal attempt at redemption. There’s also more insight into the victim themselves, which provides much needed balance and insight into the effects of this violent act. ‘The Kite Runner’s’ attempts at a similar redemption seemed comparatively hamfisted and rather one note, although of course the act is just as shocking. For this reason I still prefer Jeremy Dyson’s approach, and after reading ‘WHN’ I felt much more moved and quite deeply affected.

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Review: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I didn’t have any opinion on The Kite Runner when I started reading it, even though it’s been around the bestseller lists for a while, and had a blockbuster film made from it. I’m quite surprised I still had no idea what would happen when I started reading.

While it was well written and quite beautiful in places, I didn’t fall for this book at all. It’s a very simplistic story despite its exotic location (in the first half anyway) and everything that happens after the character’s life-changing event all feels a bit ‘easy’. The payback eventually fitted the crimes, but were a bit too convenient and  shallow. It’s not a terrible story, although we follow an unusually unsympathetic main character. Basically this feels like ‘Atonement’ set in Afghanistan, hamstrung by the sort of coincidences and coyly neat ending that mean you’re meant to leave the book with a warm glow, but which instead felt much too tidily rounded off for such a ragged situation.

I read Kite Runner mainly because I’d heard of it, and I’m gad I at least attempted to get something out of it. However, I didn’t engage with it and I didn’t feel it left me with any strong feeling about the main character, other than, ‘I’m glad that that all turned out OK, then, didn’t it…sort of…’

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW (also SPOILERS for Jeremy Dyson’s ‘What Happens Now’)

I also recently finished reading ‘What Happens Now’ by Jeremy Dyson, about three days after after I’d finished ‘The Kite Runner’.  It was taking me a while to write the review of Kite Runner and, weirdly, Dyson’s book has helped me to clarify just what felt wrong about how similar themes were used in ‘KR’. I want to note a few of them here.

In Kite Runner, I was sad but not especially surprised when the incredibly evil bully in Kite Runner took his brutal revenge on Amir’s childhood friend, Hassan. Angered by an earlier show of resistance, the bully rapes the loyal Hassan in an alley while Amir watches, too terrified to prevent it. Rape is used all too often in fiction to provide shocking drama, and Kite Runner employs it to propel the main character’s whole outlook during the rest of the book. ‘The Kite Runner’ makes it all about Amir, whose catharsis only comes after letting the same bully who attacked Hassan (now holding his friend’s son prisoner and raping that little boy, too) beat the tar out of him until the boy fights back with a slingshot.

There’s a leaden lump of coincidence happening at the end of ‘The Kite Runner’, too. It makes Amir’s struggle for redemption a very straightforward path, even though it’s painful, and I got an odd sense of inevitability and detachment from the ponderously slow self-analysis and gradual action. Amir’s very reluctant return to his home country seems mainly to let us point at Taliban-rules Afghanistan and say ‘isn’t it all dreadful now’ and of course it is, but it doesn’t provide much more insight than that. Also, everyone knows each other in this war torn country, to quite an insane extent.

Persuaded by an old friend Amir to return for his redemption, he rescues Hassan’s abused son from their childhood bully, who is now in the Taliban. While the rescue naturally provides much relief, a a reader I came out of it all feeling rather manipulated. This sense only increases when the boy tries to kill himself after being freed. Amir adopts him and everything is sewn up, as the boy slowly comes back to life and we end with the circular act of flying kites. This catharsis felt obvious and even shallow, beautiful yes, but so simplistic, and so inevitable it was barely earned.

‘What Happens Now’ dealt with rape very differently in its narrative. I shall be reviewing the whole book later, but its similaritie sto the Kite Runner were quite striking.

WHN also uses the awful act of rape to drive its entire narrative, and like ‘K.R.’ the rape is inflicted on someone the protagonist loves, when he was too young and afraid to prevent it happening, and witnessing it torments him for years afterwards. In WHN the reader knows nothing about the rape until very near to the end of the book. The descriptions of the characters’ inner lives, both before and after the moment, are very cleverly structured and it takes a while to fit all the shifting pieces together. I felt more in tune with the characters, their actions made more sense once the rape was revealed, the trauma’s effect on their lives suddenly clicking everything before into place. It’s very elegantly achieved.

The main character’s cathersis in ‘WHN’ is genuinely tragic and rather ambiguous. Its effectiveness is assisted by a touch of what is either magic or something deeply spiritual, which has been foreshadowed all the way through. Also the effect on the victim, outraged and damaged by what was done to them, eventually healing from these emotional scars, is brilliantly drawn.

It might be unfair to compare books, but I felt that ‘The Kite Runner’ was very simplistic although it has garnered rave reviews, whereas ‘What Happens Now’ contains very similar difficult themes but deals with them in a very different, and far more adult way.

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