Saturday, September 7, 2013

Review: "All Souls" by Javier Marias

It took me awhile to find my way to a book by Javier Marias, but I finally did, and I am a better reader for it. I had heard rumblings about this writer for the past few years, actually having owned a copy of his novel A Heart So White at one point, which went missing a while ago (yet I got a new copy recently). It wasn’t until his large, multi-volume work Your Face Tomorrow appeared near the end of the second edition of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die book that I decided to look more intensively in to him. Having made room in one bookcase, and ordering all three volumes of Your Face Tomorrow, I decided to check out an early, shorter work of his. And if the Your Face Tomorrow sag is anything like this novel, All Souls, it should be a grand reading experience I cannot wait for. Although it is a campus novel, which usually reek of sub-conscious pomposity, the real revelation here was how much fun this book was to read. In its compact 210 page length, there is rarely a dull moment, and the best, juiciest scenes remind me of the smaller, darker scenes in Bolano’s 2666 and The Savage Detectives, possessing both the stylistic trickery and intrigue of those two masterworks, yet on a smaller level. And he actually becomes a bit funnier than Bolano, offering a little levity to the proceedings, even when things get very serious and introspective. This is a campus novel, so the plot deals directly with a professor from Spain spending a two years teaching at Oxford University. This unnamed narrator is truly an outsider, experiencing all levels of backstabbing, one-upsmanship and glad-handing that comes with being a professor at one of the world’s most famous universities. He falls in love with Clare, a married teacher who has a tragic backstory that prevents her from making a commitment with any of the man in her life. While this relationship is at the heart of the story, it being the driving force behind many of the narrators actions, and ultimately being the one thing he hinges all his happiness on, the joy I got from this novel comes from the little scenes the narrator fins himself in, as well as the bizarre cast of characters he meets in this strange land. From the opening scene involving a groundskeeper whose memory lapses into the past focus on certain years, and you can tell which one by the professor he mistakes someone for, to the narrators meeting with a group of overweight women, affectionately called “fat tarts”, that ends with quite an introspective musing on oral sex, each event shows the separation he feels by being in an unfamiliar landscape like Oxford. This really resonated with now that I am out of college, a place I never really felt at home at. Marias gives us a very fun look at the kinds of hypocrisy that exists on a college campus, especially one focusing on liberal arts, where even the heartiest compliment can be neatly veiled example of a self-serving gesture. Even if you don’t agree with that, you should read this fun, over the top book that promises to put a smile on your face.
Rating: 5/5

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