In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In honour of Halloween: a book about remembering the dead. This is no story of supernatural horrors but of true crime, written by the remarkable American author and playwright Truman Capote. Capote spent years investigating a home invasion and murder of a family in Kansas that took place in 1959, taking the approach of investigating journalism. Based on dozens of interviews with everyone involved in the event – police, neighbours, relatives and the murderers themselves – Capote wrote an account of the murder, the search for the culprits and the subsequent trial.

It’s 1959 when Truman Capote reads a short article in The New York Times about an unsolved murder in the small town of Holcomb, Finney County, Kansas. He immediately decides that this will be the subject of his next writing project and travels to Holcomb with his best friend, Nelle Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird). One of the town’s prominent citizens, the rich farmer Herbert Clutter, is found murdered in his own house. So are his wife, Bonnie Clutter, and his two youngest children: Nancy (16) and Kenyon (15). The family was tied up in different rooms of the house and shot dead, with no apparent motive or sign of the killer. The tight-knit community of Holcomb is in shock and wonder if one of their trusted neighbours is the murderer. Capote follows the investigation closely, aided during the first three months by Harper Lee, who is particularly adept at befriending the wives of people Capote wants to interview. The result of the colossal project, that would take six years to complete, is a book about the terrible incident and its impact on Holcomb, the people who were connected to the events and Americans nationwide who read about it in the press.

The story begins with a description of the Clutter family and their happy, quiet life in and around Holcomb. We then skip to another scene:  two young men, recently released from prison, who are trying to get hold of some black stockings. The men are Perry Smith and Richard (Dick) Hickock, who are on their way to act on a tip of a prison mate. Apparently, a certain Mr Clutter, who lives on a farm in Finney County, has a huge safe full of cash in his house. Smith and Hickock intend to rob him of this cash. It should be a quick, easy job. It turns out not to be: there is no safe in the house and the night of the robbery ends in the murder of the Clutter family. Throughout the book, the perspective alternates between the murderers, who go on the run through America, the people of Holcomb and the police who try to find out who committed the murders. Smith and Hickock are suspected, hunted down, tried, convicted and eventually executed. The case is heavily reported on in the national news, putting ample pressure on the police to capture the culprits. Capote’s account of the events adds human interest: the background of the murderers and victims, their personalities and idiosyncrasies. Especially interesting is that Truman Capote interviewed Smith and Hickock extensively after they were captures, developing a curious sort of familiarity with them. Perry Smith, who was quieter and friendlier than Dick Hickock, especially fascinated him. Capote would be present at the men’s hangings on 14 April, 1965.

Capote himself promoted In Cold Blood as a ‘nonfiction novel’. You might wonder how anyone could write a novel without inventing anything – a valid criticism, as it turns out. The core of the story is verifiably true,  but many dialogues and other embellishments have sprouted from the author’s vivid imagination. Capote came to know most of his characters, who were of course real, living people, very well and felt he could reasonably guess how certain conversations would have played out. However, several of these people have later come forward to state that quotes, facts or entire scenes in Capote’s story are completely fabricated. The author received a lot of criticism, but the book had made millions in the meantime and continues to be a success. It was one of the first true crime novels and brought the genre its popularity.

I get the attraction of this genre, but I do have some problems with it. At times, I read Wikipedia pages of serial murders, fascinated and horrified like a sort of long distance disaster tourist. I don’t think it’s a particularly good way of spending my time – so why do I do it? Not to learn about human nature, because clearly only a tiny number of severely disturbed people are serial killers. It’s not about the solving of a mystery either. If so, I could just as well read stories of elaborate robberies that are probably much smarter and much better conducted than most killings. I think it has probably to do with the fact that these accounts are true, but they don’t sound true. At least to me, it is impossible to imagine that people can be cruel and violent for absolutely no reason, with no burden to their conscience and no redeeming circumstances. Yet here we are. Real people, in our own modern times, walk into homes of other real people and murder them. Reading  about this gives the peculiar feeling of horror of inexplicable reality.

Does the fascination of the readers justify writing a book that capitalises on a tragedy? I’m not sure it does. The story is well-written, intelligent, thoroughly researched, but is still a sensation story. Capote knew this and used it. He was known for being good at the promotion of his own works. In this book, facts that would usually have been considered ‘spoilers’ are told early on: we learn the murderers’ identities in the first chapter and are told that they would be caught and put to trial. The reader knows what is going to happen but keeps reading because Capote holds on to the details of the actual murder until almost the end of the book. You know how the bodies of the Clutter family were found but you crave to hear about what exactly happened on the day they were murdered. Those details are what the book builds up to for more than 250 pages. The rest of the book is devoted to Hickock and Smith’s conviction, time on death row (including accounts of the crimes of the other murderers there) and eventual executions. Because of writers like Capote and readers like me, the murder of four innocent people and consequential death of two guilty ones could be converted to millions of dollars.

Apart from my ethical doubts, though, Capote does a good job. He takes his time to paint a picture of quiet Holcomb and the Clutter family before delving into the complicated relationship between the two murderers and the high-profile murder investigation that takes years off the life of Alvin Dewey, the lead investigator. The many interviews (and Capote’s imagination, of course) enable him to write extensively about the lives, habits and motives of his characters. Only occasionally does he veer off to the sentimental side, for instance in his description of the Clutters as the perfect, model family who do nothing but good in their little town. Another example is the very last scene in the book, wherein Alvin Dewey by chance meets Nancy Clutter’s best friend, Susan Kidwell, by the graves of the family. It’s a few years since the murders took place, so Susan has grown up and is in college. She’s “a pretty girl in a hurry, her smooth hair swinging, shining—just such a young woman as Nancy might have been.” The coincidence of the meeting, paired with the contemplation of what might have been, was a bit too much for me.

Mostly though, Capote’s storytelling is good. He had me hoping that the Clutter family would escape, even when I already knew they were going to die. He had me wanting some redemption arc for the murderers, although what redemption could there be for killing a random family? The story is gripping and its form very original at the time it was written, so the book would be entertaining if it didn’t deal with real people and real events. As it is, the story fails to elevate itself above a horrible guilty pleasure.

Train Wreck Award: you can’t look away

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences (New York 1965)


Jo Robin

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells is often aptly called the ‘father of science fiction’. As a writer of both utopian and dystopian novels, Wells was a futurist who in the 19th century already predicted a number of inventions and events that were to take place in the next century. Now, he wasn’t a medium who was able to predict the future, even though one might easily think that’s the only way he could’ve been correct on so many occasions. Wells was taught in biology and his personal interest was in the ethics connected to the possible biological innovations. The step towards futuristic novels isn’t a great one then. My point is that Wells is often spot-on, and his horror novels scare us so, because we can easily see it happening in the near future. Many of his books depict the horrors of war, in science-fiction form, but no less recognisable now after the two world wars. ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’ is a warning in short of what might happen in case we were to experiment without our conscience getting in the way. It should come as no surprise then that Wells himself was a pacifist.

The novel starts off with Edward Prendick, who gets shipwrecked and floats around in the Pacific Ocean. Eventually, after all his other shipmates have died, a man named Montgomery picks him up. Montgomery takes Prendick with him to an island, where some kind of animalistic human greets them. This creature, named M’ling, is just one of the many strange creatures that lives on the island. Montgomery however remains very vague on what’s going on at the island and why he has brought so many animals with him to the island. Prendick is a little confused at first, grateful however that he has been saved, but when he hears the screams of both men and animals at night, his wonder turns into fear.

After a simply frightful night, Prendick learns that the island is owned by a Doctor Moreau. Apparently this Dr. Moreau was exposed in England with a big scandal a few years prior, for terrible experiments of vivisection. Soon Prendick can’t stand the agonizing screams any longer and he flees into the jungle. There he encounters a number of creatures, which are not quite animals and not quite men. An ape-man takes Prendick with him to their colony in the jungle. These creatures appear to be obsessed with the ‘Law’, which they recite over and over again. The Law consists of prohibitions against bestial behaviour and basically calling Dr. Moreau their Lord and Creator. When Dr. Moreau comes looking for Prendick, he runs. Prendick has figured out by now that everything on the island has been experimented on by Dr. Moreau and he’d rather drown than to end up like one of those poor creatures.

Dr. Moreau and his assistent Montgomery manage to soothe Prendick just a little bit when they explain that those creatures weren’t once people that have been experimented on, but they are in fact animals that have been turned ‘human’. Why that would be a relief to anyone I wouldn’t know, but it calms Prendick down a little, though he is outraged by the complete disregard of ethics on the island. Dr. Moreau not only creates these ‘Beast Folk’. as he calls them, with surgeries that go on for days, but he also trains them to fear pain, He does this so that former puma’s or whatever will not attack him, because they are still animals at heart. As you can imagine, all hell breaks loose when the Beast Folk start to doubt the order of things and rebel.

One of the most interesting things about the book was the fact the Beast Folk are full characters of the story. They’re not just scary or wild or experiments gone wrong. They’re not monsters: they all have names. Some are more ‘successfully’ made human than others, like for example some have speech and some walk on two legs, while others don’t. But the worst part is that the animals may start to resemble humans in form a bit, but they are often confused as to what they really are. The Ape-men keep reciting the Law, about how they are not beasts, but of course they really are, or were. When the rebellion of the Beast Folk starts, many turn back to their animal selves, start crawling on all fours again and attack when feeling threatened. Strangely enough, Prendick is the only one who feels sorry for them in a way, though he fears for his life at the same time. In the end, he has to put most of them down as Moreau and his experiments have left him very little choice. The doctor who has just tinkered with biology to satisfy his own scientific curiosity hasn’t just created monsters: it becomes clear that the real monster here is Doctor Moreau.

Doctor Moreau is an interesting character in the story though, as we get to know practically nothing about him. He appears now and then, explains the science and then disappears again. You get to know very little about his background, his motives and his character. Some of the Beast Folk see him as God, and in a way he is to them because he has created them as they are now and has bent the laws of nature. At the same time he has mutilated a lot of animals, only for his own curiosity’s sake. And this is what makes him so scary. He is the absolute cold-hearted scientist of horror fiction. We know nothing of him, except that he plays with nature, fights against nature and is, ultimately, just as cruel as nature. Darwin would have been so proud, but is it still evolution if man recreates the laws of nature? And aren’t we responsible for whatever it is we experiment with? What about the consequences: Dr. Moreau lets all of his previous experiments just loose on the island. I think what’s lacking in the 19th century scientific breakthroughs is the same characteristic that Dr. Moreau lacks and makes him so scary to me: compassion.

At the end of the 19th century, many scientists experimented with vivisection. At the same time, anti-vivisection organisations appeared. One of the main arguments against it was that one should not try and alter God’s creation, but ethics also played a major part in its opposition. Animals obviously have feelings as well and hurting them to make them better, to make them more human, is cruel. Is being human even better than being an animal? At the core of all of this lies a Darwinist believe in evolution, a line that always has to go up, and the 19th century fear of social degeneration. A lot of these thoughts were in fact racist and scientists strived to create a superior human race. But where do ethics come into play? They hardly seem to matter to the elite and scientists back then and I’m guessing that this is one of the reasons why Wells wrote his book. Of course he also tries to warn us what might happen if we tamper with biology and it makes for a great and absolutely spine-thrilling science fiction novel, but Wells spends a great deal of time describing the constant pain these Beast Folk are in. Their pain is not only physical, but it is also existential. I came across this book through the series ‘Orphan Black’, which is about the cloning of human beings and their fight for autonomy over their bodies and their lives. There are so many similarities to be found between both stories, but at its core is the question whether we can actually own another creature. Can we just play God, create and then dominate?

I’ve written a lot about the biology and ethics in this book now, and how Wells appears to warn us of the ethical pitfalls of our human arrogance, but somehow the book isn’t like the lecture I’ve just made it out to be. He’s not preaching, but simply warning his readers. As a book, it’s also fun to read and a bit like watching a scary film. I couldn’t put it down, because you just know from the beginning that this isn’t going to end well. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well. Still, I enjoyed reading it immensely, with Wells’ great gift of prose. At times it did made me sick to my stomach and even a little paranoid. But, I guess human beings like being scared, even more so when it’s an actual possibility that something like that might happen.

In short, this book is a fun read for anyone interested in science-fiction and horror. But I’d say it falls more into the category of science-fiction and futurism, because even though it may not all be scientifically possible exactly as Wells describes it, we do tend to dabble in trying to change the laws of nature. And maybe we should, maybe it’s our job as humans to strive for perfection in nature, and maybe it isn’t: that’s up to you to decide. I do think however that Wells has made it perfectly clear that it could go horribly wrong when you disregard ethics as well as the laws of nature. So, if you’re looking for a book that’s just a great fright at first, but might make you ponder science and ethics for weeks afterwards, this is the book for you!

The Stuff of Nightmares Award: for real nightmares are often frighteningly realistic 

H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau (London, 1896)


Thura Nightingale 

All you need is kill (Ōru Yū Nīdo Izu Kiru) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

All you need is kill is described as a ‘light novel’ which is a genre in Japanese literature aimd at a young audience. The characteristics of a light novel are that they are short (around 50.000 words), aimed and young people and often illustrated with the manga art style. This makes the books accessible to a wide audience. This doesn’t mean the stories of a light novel are light themselves though! This story, for example, is an action-packed war story set in the future where bad-ass soldiers fight an alien force set on the complete destruction of earth and the human race. The only solutions humanity has is to destroy the alien force themselves. At the core of the book are questions of what it means to be a soldier and how ethical it is to destroy one civilization for the benefit of another one.

All you need is kill is both a science fiction and dystopian story. The story begins at one of the numerous battles humanity fights against an enemy called the mimics. The appearance of the mimic species is compared with that of an ugly toad. They are hard to kill and breed like crazy. At least that is what I assume because they came from a galaxy far far away to take over the earth as their new home planet. Their own planet could not sustain their growing population anymore. For the mimics taking over another planet means completely changing the ecosystem and kill all the species that happened to be living on it. This is because the mimics need other things to survive and they do not tolerate competition. However, when they came to earth they did not count on humanity’s resistance.

When the book starts, humans and the mimics are involved in a full-on world war, where every nation is trying to defend their fronts. The humans fight in full-body suits tailored to every individual which increases their battle capacities and allows them to carry bigger weapons. This is necessary because killing a mimics requires more firepower than a standard pistol. Initially, humanity seems doomed because the mimics are so much more powerful. However, humanity is quickly learning to defend itself through the full body suits and by learning more about how the mimics fight. For example, the mimics fight by using time loops. Whenever they stand to lose a battle, they have the power to rewind time for a maximum of 48 hours. This allows them to learn from mistakes and to predict where the enemy will be and thus to win every battle. At a certain moment, they accidentally include humans into these time loops, so they also experience the same battle over and over again. This allows humans to learn more about the mimics and to find out that the loop can be broken by killing the key mimics with the power of starting the loops. With the discovery of these time loops, the two main characters of this book come in. They both experience the time loops and the way they use them creates hope that humans might win the battle for earth.

There are two main characters in this book: Keiji Kiriya and Rita Vatraski, aka the Full Metal Bitch. First, we meet Keiji who is a fresh recruit from the Japanese forces, fighting his first battle and dying. Before he dies he meets Rita, the Full Metal Bitch. Rita is a weathered soldier who gets flown all over the world to win battles as leader of an elite force. She might be small and she doesn’t have the look of a fighter, but that doesn’t stop her. Her fighting suit gives her the power she needs and her skills, experience and feel for battle make her an unstoppable mimic-killing machine. When Rita and Keiji meet in the middle of a battle Keiji is in a state of panic and Rita gets him out of that by asking him whether green tea is served for free after a meal in Japan. The randomness of that questions manages to wake Keiji out of his stupor and before he dies he kills one last mimic in a final desperate attempt. The following morning he wakes up in his bed the day before his first battle. He discovers that by killing that Mimic he is inadvertently sucked into a time loop where he experiences his first battle over and over again. The time loop usually ends when he dies. What follows after is Keiji’s attempts to figure out what’s going on while he repeats the same day over and over again. His actions in the time loop show how much of a fighting spirit he has because instead of going insane from boredom or desperation in his circumstances he decides to train and become a super soldier and to find a way to kill all the mimics by himself.

After going through the time loop for about 150 times he discovers that Rita also has experiences with the time loops. By answering the green tea question Rita asked when they first met he lets her know they share the experience. The battle hasn’t happened yet so there is no other way for Kaiji to know about the green tea question than time loops (and for those of you who are curious: yes, it is free). Upon hearing the answer Rita starts crying because she finally met someone who knows how the isolation of going through the same battle over and over again feels. She had to see her friends die almost every time she goes through a time loop without being able to save them all. Rita knows how to break the time loops and how to defeat the mimics and from this point, Keiji and Rita start to work together. Also, around this point, the perspective of the book changes and the story is alternately told by Rita and Keiji. This is a nice switch because Rita has been involved with the war for a long time, so through her, we learn more about the origin of the mimics, the attacks, how the time loops work and most importantly: how to defeat the mimics and escape the loops.

What I liked about this book is that it doesn’t focus on the necessity of super strength for battle. Of course, soldiers must train to create the required endurance to survive a battle, but beyond a certain point, increased physical strength doesn’t make you a better soldier. The suits require technical skill and training to use well, and only when soldiers become skilled they benefit from the suit’s capacities. However, no matter how good the suits are, they do not turn everyone into a good soldier. Rita and Keiji also excel in fighting because they have so much experience in battle by going through the same one over and over again via the time loops. When you can repeat a single challenge over and over again there are a lot of opportunities to learn from previous mistakes. Their attitude is also important though: without their determination to fight even a thousand time loops wouldn’t have helped much. Rita and Keiji focus on the battle and on learning from the mistakes they made in the previous go instead of turning looney by dying every day at the end of the time loop. That is what turns them into good soldiers.

The writing style of this book is straight-forward and to the point. Especially in the beginning a lot of factual information is given. Later on, when the bond between Rita and Keiji grows, there are more emotions, but they are never to an excess. This I liked a lot. I like books that narrate about the ending of the world in a calm and factual manner. This report style of writing allows you as a reader to think more about what happens to the world and what it means instead of focusing on the personal problems of one individual. In some dystopian YA books, the focus is too much on love and personal issues, which distracts from the main point of the book. When the world is ending and you are the only one who can stop it, you’d think you’ll focus on other things than your own personal dilemma’s. Additionally, this book gives few details. Maybe that is because of the restrictions of the light novel format, but I actually don’t know if Sakurazaka wanted to write more. For example, there are full body suits, but it is never explained how they were invented. We as readers have to accept they are there. Also, it is never explained where the mimics got their name. I first thought that was because they take on the appearance of humans to trick them, but I guess not. It also could not be because they mimic time in the time loops because most humans are not aware of that ability. I guess this will remain a mystery. Many reviewers thought the lack of details a downside of the book, but personally, I like short stories with a strong message, so it didn’t bother me. Reading is a lot of suspension of disbelief anyway, especially science-fiction, so a story with a good plot can take some more. Also, not explaining things you’re not able to is sometimes better than giving a bad explanation that slows the pace of the book.

Another thing I want to talk about is the movie The edge of tomorrow which is an adaption of this book. Not because I want to make this the kind of review that concludes that the book is better than the movie. It is actually a very good sci-fi action movie. I also don’t want to make this the kind of review that points out that Hollywood created a movie where the Japanese main character is played by Tom Cruise, although that is annoying and unnecessary. The thing I wanted to say is about the female lead they casted in the movie. In the book, Rita is described as a small woman with bright red hair who doesn’t have the appearance of a soldier at all when she is not fighting. She even comes across as vulnerable when she is not fighting. Her fame in battle comes from her fighting skills and experience and not from the way she looks. However, the Full Metal Bitch persona is used and adapted in the book for efforts to promote the war effort and to keep the morale of the soldiers up in, but not with Rita. They hire an actor to play Rita. At a certain moment, Rita and Kaiji lament that the woman who plays the Full Metal Bitch in the promotional material doesn’t look like Rita at all. In The edge of tomorrow movie they also casted someone who doesn’t look like Rita at all. They casted Emily Blunt, who does a very good acting job in the movie, but also looks like a soldier when fighting and outside battle. Emily Blunt looks like she could defend nations with her bare arms. It is a big missed opportunity that the actual movie of the book made the same casting decision as the movie in the book, instead of keeping the narrative that shows us that not all good soldiers look like one.

The ending of the book and the conclusion of the last battle kept me thinking about this book for a while. I was wondering how many soldiers had experienced the time loops and worked themselves out of them through trial and error. I always admire a book that ends in a way that keeps you wondering about the world that was created in the book. Also, the question of civilization and what is allowed to ensure the survival of your species kept me thinking for a while after I finished the book. After all, we all like to think our own form of civilization is worth fighting for, which leads to war when multiple civilizations claim the same piece of land. But what makes it worth fighting for your own civilization and what makes life worth protecting? Maybe that last question is answered in the last scene before the battle at the end of the book. Rita and Keiji share the ritual of coffee making with only a filter and a pot of boiling water and a coffee grinder. They bond over this meticulous process by anticipating the coffee through the smells and by enjoying this simple act of companionship and ritual. The ritual of drinking a cup of real coffee is lost to most people because the mimics use a scorched-earth kind of warfare where land they conquer is made unfit for agriculture in the foreseeable future. This led to reducing agriculture on the remaining lands to staple crop production to feed people, and not coffee. However, Rita is an elite soldier, so she can get anything she wants because she knows places where coffee is still grown. Maybe Sakurazaka placed this relaxing coffee making scene before the big battle to show us the importance of human company and enjoying the small things in life, such as a good cup of coffee to make life worth living and fighting for. What else keeps a person going? This scene has one of the best coffee quotes I’ve ever read with which I’ll end this review:

“Cream-coloured bubbles hissed to life where the water touched the grounds. A striking aroma woven of threads bitter, sweet and sour filled the air surrounded the table.”(p.123)

Determination award for showing us that everyone can win a battle when you can try 200+ times.

Hiroshi Sakurazaka , Ōru Yū Nīdo Izu Kiru (Tokyo, 2004)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is almost universally loved and adapted a thousand times. Although popularity is no guarantee that a book is good, this book is certainly worth all the attention. The novel, first published in 1813, is a satire of society that points out all strange kinds of human beings with a deathly accuracy. While the quest for love obviously plays a big role in every human being’s life, Pride and Prejudice is much more than the phenomenal romance it is known for. To me, it was probably the first book that made me really appreciate the English language when I was learning it, although I must have missed a thousand subtleties when I read it for the first time.

The only thing Mrs Bennett wants is for her five daughters to be safely settled in good marriages. Sadly, they’re not be easily matched. The youngest two, Kitty and Lydia, don’t think of marriage, only of flirting with as many men as possible. The middle girl, Mary, is a very pious, bookish girl with no interest in romance. The eldest daughter, Jane, is beautiful and lovely, but terribly shy and the second eldest, Elizabeth, has high standards and a sarcastic mind. When the rich Mr Bingley moves to a nearby estate called Netherfield Park, Mrs Bennett sees her chance. The young man must fall for one of her daughters.

Through Mrs Bingley’s efforts, the family meets Mr Bingley and becomes acquainted with his sisters and his best friend, Mr Darcy. Although everybody, especially Jane, immediately likes Mr Bingley, Mr Darcy is not so popular. He seems proud and haughty, unwilling to mix with people besides his close friends. From the moment he snubs Elizabeth (or Lizzie, for short) at a dance, she dislikes him. Her opinion of him does not get better when she meets an old acquaintance of him: Mr Wickham, an army officer who knows bad things about Mr Darcy’s past. Jane and Mr Bingley, on the other hand, get on famously until the party at Netherfield moves suddenly back to London and Jane is left with a broken heart.

The Bennett family receive another visitor: their cousin, Mr Collins, who is to inherit their home after Mr Bennett dies. The man is a preposterous joke of a clergyman. He is overly formal, wordy, dumb and he worships his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. That lady has suggested that he marry, so he has set his mind on Elizabeth Bennett. She, however, rejects his proposal, not even considering marrying a man she doesn’t respect. But through Mr Collins, she meets Mr Darcy again: he is the nephew of Lady Catherine. Over time, Lizzie comes to learn things about him that make her furious at first and thankful later on. Both Lizzie and Mr Darcy need to change when they slowly learn to appreciate each other. In the middle of the chaotic mess that is the Bennett family and their relations, Mr Darcy turns out to be kinder and more trustworthy than Lizzie expected, while Lizzie herself appears capable to adjust her harsh judgments and proud attitude.

The writing style is light with lots of smart dialogue and therefore very readable. Austen doesn’t need a redundancy of words because she knows exactly what she wants to say. I imagine Austen sitting at her desk, barely holding in a smile while she writes her colourful characters and their many misunderstandings. I think that what makes her dialogues so great is that not only are they really witty, every character has his or her own speech pattern as well. Clearly, Austen doesn’t try to put in as many smart observations and putdowns as she can, but takes time to develop everyone’s individual personalities. She is a novelist first and foremost.

By drawing up her characters so realistically, with their little idiosyncrasies, flaws and daily struggles, Austen manages to create a world that never stops being funny, even though society has changed incredibly since her own days. Maybe the rules of society aren’t as clearly defined today as they were in the early 1800’s, but that doesn’t mean they have disappeared. We still make fun of them and laugh when these rules are broken: much of modern situational comedy and stand-up comedy depends on this. Austen’s types hold up wonderfully in the twenty-first century. We all know melodramatic teenage partygirls and humble-bragging men, overbearing mothers and fathers who have simply given up.

In the midst of these funny characters, Lizzie is a realistic and relatable protagonist. She’s an intelligent young woman, quick and observant and very aware of how she and her family are perceived. On the one hand, she’s often kind and has a lot of common sense. On the other, she can be judgmental and her sarcasm is quite hurtful sometimes. Once she has formed an opinion of someone, she’s willing to believe every rumour that supports her view. This changes slowly as she develops throughout the book and she becomes a little kinder and more willing to get to know someone before judging them. I liked that this happened slowly instead of suddenly. I think it more likely that a person changes over time than all at once, inspired by some momentary realisation. At some point, Mr Darcy writes Elizabeth a letter to explain some things he has done that have to do with the Bennett family. At the beginning of the story, Darcy would have thought it far beneath him to explain himself to anyone, even someone he cares about. The letter shows how far he has come. Even more interesting is the effect the letter has on Lizzie: she bristles at some of his explanations, because they contradict things she was sure about. But after a few minutes, she starts to think about the content of the letter and over the course of weeks, even months, she re-evaluates her thoughts and opinions drastically. Change and personal development don’t happen suddenly and rationally: they take time and effort. After all, everyone needs to give up some pride to admit they were wrong.

Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own that women in Austen’s time became novelists because the only training they got as a writer was the observation of human behaviour and interaction. Most of them had to work in a sitting room full of other people. Jane Austen got ample opportunity to observe how the people around her talked and moved, but would perhaps be interrupted too often to be able to concentrate on writing poetry or plays. Pride and Prejudice, Woolf says, is a great novel because of that. Austen writes without anger at her circumstances. She knows to write only of her characters, not muddy her story by talking about herself. I disagree with that last point, I think. It seems to me that Austen does put some of herself into the story, but it doesn’t hinder the flow of the story because it is done naturally. For instance, when Lizzie’s best friend Charlotte accepts a marriage proposal from a man she doesn’t love or care for, Lizzie doesn’t blame her. However, she realises that their intimate friendship has changed forever because of Charlotte’s decision, that Lizzie cannot respect. I got the impression that this was Austen’s own stance: she understood why women, especially women that weren’t in their early twenties anymore and weren’t pretty or rich, would marry someone they didn’t love. But to marry someone you don’t respect and condemn yourself to a life of pretending, that was something she could hardly forgive. Lizzie is almost at her sharpest and meanest here in her treatment of Charlotte. Austen’s personal influence on Lizzie’s character makes Lizzie more human, though.

My copy of Pride and Prejudice features a commentary by J.B. Priestley. While praising Austen’s nuance and observational skills, he mentions that the male characters are drawn against a feminine background and that ‘we cannot help feeling that Jane Austen has little idea how they talk and behave when they are away from the ladies’. It’s not exactly criticism and was probably meant as a benevolent joke about Austen’s relative naivety, but how ironic that a male writer would say so! First of all, Austen could not possibly observe men without a woman present because she was one herself. Moreover, libraries are filled with books by male authors who clearly have no idea how women behave, even with men present. Sure, men don’t bother to actually observe how women behave before they write their female characters, but if a woman writes in subtle detail about what she sees and refrains from writing about things she knows nothing about, it is suddenly worth mentioning. I’m sure people who write these things often mean no harm, but don’t be misled by this kind of hypocrisy directed towards historical female authors.

Lastly, this is a book to enjoy as well as to analyse! It offers plenty to talk about in a book club or on Tumblr or with your friends, but it is so well-written that reading it can be almost effortless. Be transported to careless evenings of dancing and good conversation, pretty gowns and handsome, uniformed men. Go on vacation to the great homes of England in a coach, visit your aunt in London, write to your sister with the morning post and get a long, handwritten letter back by evening. Inquire into the lives of people you meet, the places they come from, the scandals they caused. Most of all, fall in love with Lizzie and Mr Darcy, a couple that was not made for each other but only fits when both headstrong participants overcome their stubbornness. If you haven’t read it yet, do, and if you have, do it again.

Carriage Award for taking a scenic though bumpy route to a romantic destination

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (London 1813)


Jo Robin

Zorro by Isabel Allende

Many children these days are formed by the things they see on television. Kids from the 80s grew up with The A-Team, 90s’ kids with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and I have no idea what kids watched who were born after 2000. The point I’m getting at, is that I watched the reruns of Zorro, the clumsy series from the fifties, and therefore I played I was Zorro a lot when I was little. I carved Z’s into walls, I ran around in a mask and I even tried to get my horse to prance, without much success. To this day, a small part of me wishes to be this masked hero by night and some Mediterranean gentleman by day, but obviously I can’t, so I have to make do with the series, my imagination, and this wonderful book by Isabel Allende.

In Zorro, Allende explores the myths and stories about Diego de la Vega, a.ka. Zorro, in the form of an origin story. Allende’s Zorro tells the story of Zorro’s childhood, education in Spain and eventually his metamorphosis in the fox (El Zorro) and choice to always fight for justice. The story starts off in the eighteenth century with the handsome Captain Alejandro de la Vega, who helps a priest when the Native Americans are attacking his Californian mission. However, when the Captain strikes down the chief, he finds that she is a woman. He falls in love at once and eventually manages to make her his wife. The Native American woman is now called Regina, soon becomes pregnant, but she is unhappy and she feels caged in a house. When she gives birth to her son Diego, a servant girl bares a son as well, Bernardo. As both children share the servant’s milk, they are now brothers, according to the ways of their tribe.

Educating her son gives Regina, or Toypurnia, which is her actual Native name, a reason to live and run wild once again. She teaches him the language and ways of her people and she takes both boys on regular visits to her tribe. Diego’s grandmother is White Owl, the shaman and spiritual leader of the tribe. So the boys grow up in an unusual manner, at the house of a rich Californian gentleman and with the tribe of their people. After a traumatic experience when they were little, Bernardo has stopped speaking. The tribe accepts this easily and the bond between the boys grows even stronger, with an understanding between them that needs no words. But eventually Don Alejandro has had enough of his son’s running wild and sends him to the other side of the world, to Spain, to receive his formal education. Diego refuses to go without Bernardo of course, and even though the boys are only fifteen years old, they view it as an adventure.

In Spain, the brothers grow into their own. Diego is being educated in languages, history and fencing, teaching Bernardo everything he learns. At the same time they run around the city, strike up an unusual friendship with the Romani and eventually go their own way. Bernardo has fallen in love back home with a girl named Light-in-the-Night, but Diego has just found his charms and his way with women, while he is also secretly in love with one of the daughters of the family they are staying with: Juliana. All this takes a backseat however, when Diego joins a secret organisation called La Justicia, which is devoted to justice and where his secret name is Zorro. When Juliana’s father is arrested for French sympathies, Diego takes his two daughters and hides them. Eventually they make their way back to Diego’s home to California, after a detour and some time spent with pirates in Louisiana, where the political tensions have risen, so Zorro has no choice but to ride once again.

Officially this is an origin story, and what a story it is. A story about the fox, Zorro, the legend or pulp hero, could’ve easily become boring or a repetition of something that has been done before many times. But Allende took another angle when she wrote the book on Diego becoming Zorro. There are many things in the legends that are never explained: how Diego knows so much about Native American culture, why his skin is darker that other gentlemen’s, where Bernardo comes from and what his upbringing was like. Isabel Allende uses all of the elements of popular fiction, but fills in the gaps with her well-formed tale. For example, she invents the characters of White Owl and Light-in-the-Night, because in the old series the Native Americans were never much a part of the story. You could even say they are being ignored, let alone their culture and way of life given any thought or room, but in this book Allende devotes a lot of time to their ways. The tribe is what keeps the boys together, they accept them for who they are and give them both the strength and education that will eventually allow them to become Zorro.

The funny thing is that in Zorro we do find many characters that are historical. An example is the governor of California, Pedro Fages, and much of the political conflicts are historical as well. Diego comes to Spain in 1812 when Napoleon is in full action, which makes for a great insight into history through Juliana’s family, whose father sympathises with the French. Also, much to my liking, Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen, appears into the story when they are staying in Louisiana and even better, Jean Lafitte, the pirate that takes them hostage, was a real notorious pirate in those days! Lastly, just a fun little thing, George Sand makes a small appearance, as one of the young girls that traipses after Diego. These real people made the story feel like I was really reading a historical biography of the Diego de la Vega, and I loved it.

I’ve read many reviews in which people have written that this book is extremely slow paced, and therefore boring. I agree: the book has a rather slow pace. You follow both boys as they grow up to be men, with all of their mistakes and learning curves. Because the pace of the book isn’t rushed, it actually feels like you are there, like you are part of their world. Secondly, it takes time to weave legend with history so seamlessly as Allende does. Her prose carries you to a place where myths and the real world collide, a world of ancient tribes and colonialism colliding. At the same time, it reminds you of your own process of growing up, with all the insecurities that come with finding your own identity. In my opinion, a book like this has to be slow-paced, or one would lose so much of what makes this a great story.

Through the organisation of La Justicia, Diego vows to fight all forms of injustice and Isabel Allende appears to do the same in this novel. She fights all forms of discrimination against Native Americans, simply by educating us of their ways. At the same time, we see how they have suffered when their land was taken, the richness of their culture and their acceptance of people who are different. Through Bernardo, she creates a tale of acceptance of someone with a crippling disability, especially in that time. In the same manner, the book takes a very defensive and admiring stance when it comes to the Romani, a people who have been hated for as long as there is history, without any good reason. Also, Allende touches upon the subject of war and how it affects even the most ordinary of people, when the father of Juliana gets arrested, simply for supporting the losing party at some point. And then there’s Juliana and her younger sister Isabel. Isabel is nothing like her feminine sister: she is a tomboy and intend on learning how to fence. She’s able to adapt to whatever when things go south and grows into a strong and practical woman. By the way, Juliana appears to be flowery and permanently uncertain at first, but eventually runs off with a pirate, so that changed my view of the fragile girl entirely. Women written by Allende are often strong, put their foot down when they really want something and are, most of all, never what they seem. Almost like real women, right? I just love how Allende exposes one prejudice we live with after another, and this can not be written about enough.

As anyone who has read my reviews might have noticed, I love Isabel Allende’s way of storytelling, which just sucks you in with brilliant and passionate language and a way with words that can create a world before your eyes. If you would like to read more about my love for Allende, you can check out my review of Eva Luna here, where I discuss her writing style in detail. There is just one thing that might disappoint people when they read this book, if, like me, they saw the series of Zorro growing up. Zorro lacks the action of the series most of the time, there are very little action-packed scenes of fencing and there are no serenades. This is however the way it is with an origin story and if you’d like to know more about how our hero became our hero, this is the book for you. If you’re looking for a more adventurous and hilarious tale, with the cliché and fat Sergeant Garcia being fooled over and over by Zorro, stick to the series.

Representational Hero Award for little girls and boys who run around pretending to be a masked hero of Native American, an underrepresented minority, descent

Isabel Allende, Zorro (New York City, 2005)


Thura Nightingale