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Book Review - A General Theory of Oblivion


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I joined a reading group at the local library. It runs every month on a Friday afternoon, and I bring the age average down significantly. That is to say, most people there are retirees, which makes sense because who else has time to go to a reading group that runs on Friday afternoons?

Me. I have time. It's one of the perks of being a full-time #WriterMom.

So, last month we read a book called A General Theory of Oblivion, which is ostensibly about a Portuguese woman who walls herself (literally) into her apartment during the independence and civil wars in Angola. The book was written in Portuguese, and we read an English translation. The book has won and was shortlisted for a bunch of awards, so it's in my category of "literary" (whatever that means).

Here's what I think about it. First, in terms of learning about Angola, it's been highly educational. What I love about books is how they take you to a different time and place, and this book does the job. Second, the language is just beautiful. Here are a few of my favourite quotes:

"... the sharp edge of his voice like a blade against the throats of his interlocutors."

"The exclamation marks got mixed up with the machetes the protesters were carrying."

"I am foreign to everything, like a bird that has fallen into the current of a river."

"The days slide by as if they were liquid."

"... he began to walk stooped slightly to the left, as though he were being pushed, from within, by a violent gale."

"... after I have died, all that remains will be my voice."

"We always die of dejection. That is, when our souls fail us, then we die."

"She sat down on one of the chairs, tense, clinging to her handbag as if to a buoy."

"People who are missed by other people, they are the ones who go to Paradise."

You can see how it won literary awards, right? It's poetic and philosophical and such.

But. One problem I think this book has is that on the surface, the main character is a woman, Ludo, the one who walls herself into her apartment. But she's not a character at all in the sense that she has minimal personality. She's the "author's voice", she's a vessel for the author to make philosophical claims about the human condition, but she's a flat character. The only other female character is Madalena, a nurse who's job in the plot is to save one of the male characters, then she disappears. She, at least, is a bit rounder than Ludo as a character, but she's a plot device. In short, I was not impressed by the fact that a book that portends to be "about a woman" has no actual women in it.

Other people in the reading group found the jumping from character to character annoying. I'm keeping the description deliberately vague here because I don't want to spoil the plot. It was quite challenging to follow, especially if you read chapter by chapter like I usually do (because who has time to read for four hours straight?). I didn't mind as much, but I did find the way the author brought all the threads together in the end rather forced. It's possible—I know this goes against every writing advice out there—that a good prologue would have done a better job in this case, would have wrapped up the ending with a neat little bow. As it is, I had the feeling of "ooh, I hit my word goal, let's wrap this up and go have a drink." And that's a shame.

So, recommendation? Meh. If you have time and you like reading literary books, or it's essential for you to keep updated on the latest acknowledged books, or you have a particular interest in the Angola-Portugal relationship, this is not a bad way to spend your reading time. Otherwise, I think you could do better.

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