Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Duo of Immortals: Nostalgia vs My Soul To Keep

And now two quick reviews of books I really wanted to like but found a bit meh in the end. Weirdly enough, they both focus on the idea of immortality, whether supernaturally gifted or technologically constructed. What does that shot at living forever do to someone's humanity? Good question.

So there were some good ideas here, some unique characters to follow as well, but the overall effect didn't really work for me in either. If you have any words of support for either, please share!
Nostalgia / M.G.  Vassanji
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2016.
258 p.
 New memories in new bodies. New lives. That's the ideal, though we are still far from it. The body may creak and wobble; memory develop a crack or hole. In the leaked memory syndrome, or Nostalgia, thoughts burrow from a previous life into the conscious mind, threatening to pull the sufferer into an internal abyss.
This is the  premise of this faintly dystopian novel; in the nearish future individuals can extend life via regenerated body parts, leading to what could be immortality -- but the catch is that life can not continue under the weight of accrued memories. Thus, each time someone "regenerates" they have their memory wiped, to start anew with a lovely backstory for their new life implanted in their mind. But sometimes, old memories begin to seep through, which is never good.

Our hero, the psychologist Dr. Sina, treats patients who suffer from Nostalgia. His latest patient had one sentence return, opening the flood gates to his past life, which, as it ends up, is a revolutionary one that is connected to Dr. Sina -- and the Department of Internal Security is interested. 

Vassanji brings up many intriguing topics here: immortality and memory, identity and memory, and questions of social justice when one privileged society is valued above another, or when one generation, the New Generation, is pitted against the BabyGens -- those on their first lives and struggling to get a foothold. It had a lot of potential with it's suspenseful plot and great concept. But unfortunately, I found the characters flat and mostly dull, with a dash of sexist male gaze thrown in just to top it off (Dr. Sina's young BabyGen girlfriend is described in a cringe-worthy way). 

The generational conflict and governmental conspiracy really reminded me of a fave 70s read, The Forever Formula by Frank Bonham, which I reread a while back and found pretty retro in its gender roles - apparently it's impossible to imagine something different for 180 years in the future...

My Soul to Keep / Tananarive Due
New York: Harper Voyager, c1997.
346 p.

I thought this had potential: interesting premise, but not all that interestingly told. I found it...well, a bit dull and slow-moving. The main character Jessica was an investigative journalist, but she seemed to have no curiosity or research skills when it came to her eventually very oddly behaving husband David. She was not as decisive as I had hoped an investigative journalist might be. And the other main character, her husband David (or Dawit) was an ass -- possessive, secretive, violent, etc. I realize that Due was trying to draw a picture of what might happen to someone's humanity if they were to become immortal...but I've had a lot of bad experiences with people named David, and I'm sure that didn't help with my opinion of him! 

And their relationship was a bit stifling - even with a daughter in the mix, they are quite codependent. As we learn about Dawit's past, and the fact that 400 years earlier he was granted immortality via a ritual in an Ethiopian sect (all men; it's important that women aren't allowed to receive this gift) we see more and more of his past(s) leaking through to colour his present life. And perhaps we begin to understand his obsession with Jessica and his desire not to outlive her.

I did like the larger network that Due created around these two; Jessica's family, some of the characters from David's past, for example. It added depth and complexity, and I really enjoyed the black community that this story is rooted in. My favourite bits were his memories of living in the 20s with jazz and marvellous energy flowing.

Overall, though, it was the casual descriptions of violence that really put me off. So many murders! And of children too.

I might try something else by Due to see if I'll enjoy it more. My lacklustre response may also come from the fact that this isn't my usual kind of read - and perhaps it will never be my favourite kind, personally. Don't let my tastes put you off though; if this sounds intriguing, give it a try.

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